Guest post: "My sons were child soldiers"
As more than 200,000 people shelter in camps and war continues to ravage Southern Sudan, Unicef's Emily Poyser says a generation of children is at risk of being lost
Posted on: Mon 08-Feb-16 12:37:39
(8 comments )
When Nyabol's four sons were forced to join the army in Southern Sudan last year, she worried every day about losing one of them. She knew she had to do everything she could to help them escape.
Her boys served in a regiment in a small town called Mayom. "We were so upset, especially when we saw them carrying guns. I was so worried, every day I thought I would lose a son. When they had guns in their hands it was like they were wild. We, as parents, could not control them."
Nyabol succeeded in smuggling her sons out, and once they were safe, I spent a morning with them in a displacement camp in the capital, Juba. "When your children are soldiers, your mind does not settle," she told me. "When you think about your child in the army, doing the work that they are doing, it breaks your heart."
The brutal civil war in South Sudan is now in its third year. Over 200,000 civilians are sheltering inside UN camps and child soldiers continue to be used by both sides. Child fighters are given jobs that elders don't want, including fighting on the front line.
For the mothers of these children, these are the questions that keep them awake at night: should I let my 14-year-old son fight in bloody civil war, or resist and run the risk of our family being murdered?
Nyabol was desperate to smuggle the family out and was driven by wanting her children to have an education. She knew the escape would be hard. She knew no one in Juba and had no food, money or clothes, apart from what was provided by the UN and other organisations. But by discarding the army uniforms, and borrowing football shirts from her neighbours, she disguised her sons to get them out of the town and through checkpoints. They travelled at dawn with the cattle farmers and traders, making the 200 mile journey by car and foot.
"I was so worried, every day I thought I would lose a son. When they had guns in their hands it was like they were wild. We, as parents, could not control them."
Nyabol's mind is now finally at rest - she doesn't think she and her sons will be killed anymore. Tragically though, she had to leave her two daughters and husband behind to look after the family's land and cattle.
John, the eldest son, told me about being in the army at 14. "When I was conscripted, I was taken far away from Mayom. There wasn't enough food to eat, we didn't shower or have a bed to sleep on. We slept in the open air with mosquitos and in the rain. At night, I'd have to keep watch for surprise attacks. Lots of my friends were in the army, most of them still are. When my brothers joined after me, I was worried how they would be affected. But I know there was no choice."
John's story is not uncommon and the situation for children has worsened. There are now as many as 16,000 associated with armed groups.
John told me that now he and his brothers are out of the army, education is their focus. "When I finish school, I want to make peace between the people of South Sudan. I want to teach people about what's good and bad, and get people to talk to each other."
All of John's brothers said the same thing, they all want to learn and bring peace to their country. They are now settled into life at the camp in Juba, and are attending school each morning. Life is getting better.
Unicef and its partners are working to ensure the release and reintegration of child soldiers, securing the release of over 3,000 child soldiers so far. We are improving access to education, providing new schools where none existed before, reunifying families and providing psychosocial support for children who have experienced war.
I've been to many countries where conflict destroys the lives of children, but the situation in South Sudan is heart-breaking. There are levels of brutality and human suffering like nowhere else. Worrying statistics published last month show that 51% of school age children in South Sudan are out of education, the highest proportion in the world. We risk losing a whole generation.
In the midst of conflict or disaster, schools provide a space where children can learn and be protected from violence, abuse and exploitation. Attending school can prevent against forced labour, abduction or recruitment into armed groups. Schools can also foster normalcy and hope, offering psychological protection for children who have experienced trauma.
Unicef UK is calling on the UK Government to ensure that keeping children safe in school is a priority, committing to protect schools from being attacked or taken over for military purposes. Find out more and join our campaign here.
By Emily Poyser
God those poor kids. And the mother having to leave her daughter's behind. Awful.
I am so sorry for what you are and have suffered. I am going to click on the link now.
Well that took me approx 30 seconds to do.
What Nyabol is going through is so far outside of my realm of experience that it's difficult for me to know what to say. I am so glad she was able to rescue her sons, but having to leave her husband and daughter behind must be heartbreaking.
Some context to the campaign (Telegraph link).
Watch the movie Beasts of No Nation it gives an insight into just how awful it is for the parents and children caught up in this. There are no easy choices in this situation, she did what she had to do to save her babies. Hopefully they will be reunited sometime soon.
Will click on link
Thankyou for telling us about this.
How hard and horrible for all those concerned.
And well done to all those that make a difference and turn round lives so that people can live fruitfully.