By Andrew Green
JUBA, Apr 15, 2012 (IPS) – As the process of reintegrating South Sudan’s child soldiers into their old lives begins soon, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army renewal of its lapsed commitment to release all child soldiers from its ranks in March could mean that within two years children will no longer constitute part of the country’s militia groups.
The SPLA, which is the military wing of the South Sudanese political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, is one of the few remaining national militaries in the world on the United Nations’ list of parties to conflict who recruit and use child soldiers. The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates there are 2,000 child soldiers in South Sudan. Though none are within the official SPLA, they are affiliated with militia groups that have earned amnesties from the government and are being integrated into the national military.
If the SPLA follows the action plan it has drafted and signed – removing all child soldiers from the militias and working to get them education and training opportunities – the country could be off the list in as soon as two years.
For the child soldiers, though, the process of reintegration could take much longer, as they enter schools or learn skills that will provide other opportunities for making a living outside army barracks.
The process will begin, according to Fatuma H. Ibrahim, the chief of UNICEF’s child protection unit in South Sudan, by identifying and securing the formal release of all child soldiers. On their way out, they will be given civilian clothing, because “what is military remains with the military,” she said.
The youth, who can range in age from as young as 12 up to 18, will undergo some group therapy sessions with social workers to try to understand how they came to join the militias and to talk about any violence they may have encountered.
She said there will be about one percent who “really need some clinical management,” though their options will be limited in a country with few psychiatric resources. “It’s a very big problem. Most receive tablets, but that’s it.”
Family members will also meet with social workers to discuss reintegration and ensure that the children will be welcomed back and discouraged from re-joining.
“The parents have to be ready to receive them,” Ibrahim said. In some communities in South Sudan that includes a symbolic transition ceremony.
In a country that has known war for more than two decades, the military is often one of the few viable economic opportunities for young men. Many of the children UNICEF and its partners remove from the ranks followed that pattern – looking to a position with a militia to provide some financial security for themselves and their families.
One of UNICEF’s big challenges is providing opportunities that deter the delisted child soldiers from going back. After the new release rounds take place, the youth will be given an opportunity to choose between going to school, which many of the younger ones will opt for, Ibrahim said, or learning a trade. The country’s limited job market means older youth are encouraged to learn skills like carpentry, which is in increasing demand in rapidly growing towns. In the future, they will be trained in two skills, in case the first one does not prove marketable.
UNICEF and other organisations are also working to provide incentives to keep the child soldiers from re-enlisting. Ibrahim pointed to a livestock-rearing project, where former child soldiers are given a goat to raise and breed.
If the programme is going to work, she said, the incentives have “to be meaningful.”
South Sudan’s new action plan was officially signed on Mar. 16 by the country’s Ministry of Defence, the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan – UNMISS, UNICEF and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy.
Since it achieved independence last year, South Sudan has seen sporadic violence flare up across the country. In the north, there are ongoing hostilities with Sudan. And various parts of the country – especially Jonglei state – have seen consistent intertribal conflict over land rights and cattle.
Coomaraswamy said most of the country’s child soldiers are found in the north, where violence has been most consistent.
South Sudan has been on the U.N. list long before its independence in July 2010. The earlier incarnation of the SPLA – the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement – was one of the original groups included when the list was drafted in 2002.
In 2006 a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between north and south Sudan, which ended decades of fighting and paved the way for South Sudanese independence. At the time, the SPLA committed to an action plan to release its child soldiers, though it did not completely follow through.
By 2009, monitoring organisations had found no child soldiers within the main SPLA, though they still existed in the militia groups.
Coomaraswamy said the country’s renewed commitment comes from “the power of the list” and pressure from international partners.
And while the U.N. has never sanctioned South Sudan over its inclusion, she said there was always a possibility that would happen. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance, has suffered sanctions as a result of its inclusion.
Coomaraswamy said her office is currently in negotiations with the DRC, Myanmar, also known as Burma, and Somalia – the only government militaries who have not yet signed on to an action plan.
*Andrew Green is reporting from South Sudan on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism programme based in Washington, D.C.