A South Sudanese militia group has handed over 280 child soldiers to UN and government officials, the first release under a deal which will secure the freedom of 3,000 underage fighters in the coming weeks.
The children, ranging in age from 11 to 17, were all recruited by the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction led by David Yau Yau, which had been battling the forces of President Salva Kiir but has now made peace with the government. Most have never attended school, and some had been fighting for as long as four years — since before the birth of the fledgling nation in July 2011.
The world's youngest country, South Sudan has been wracked by civil war since December 2013, when fighting broke out in Juba between government and opposition forces nominally under command of former Vice President Riek Machar. The civil war has since devolved into a battle between the largest ethnic groups, Kiir's Dinka and the Nuer, to which Machar belongs. Thousands have been killed and an estimated 1.5 million have been displaced.
Over the last year, some 12,000 children, most of them boys, have been enlisted as soldiers in South Sudan.
On Tuesday, the child soldiers were set free in the village of Gumuruk, in eastern South Sudan. They surrendered their uniforms and weapons, in a ceremony organized by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration Commission, with support from the UN children's agency UNICEF.
"I know what it is like to be a soldier and it is so dirty," one of the released child soldiers said on Tuesday. "I just want to go to school."
"The release of thousands of children requires a massive response to provide the support and protection these children need to begin rebuilding their lives," said UNICEF's South Sudan spokesman Jonathan Veitch, in a statement.
Where possible, the children will be reunited with their families. But the UN agency acknowledged that this is "a daunting task in a country where more than 1 million children have either been displaced internally or have fled to neighboring countries since fighting broke out."
UNICEF estimates that it will cost approximately $2,300 to fund the release and reintegration of each child for the next 24 months, and is calling for donations to support the program.
South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan in 2011. The oil-rich country is one of the world's least developed states, and has received billions of dollars in Western aid since its founding.
International mediators have been working to forge a power-sharing agreement between Dinka and Nuer leaders, but peace talks have stalled.
Yau Yau is a member of the Murle ethnic group, who has mounted two rebellions since 2010, claiming to be driven by the marginalization of his people as well as corruption and poor governance on the part of the new state. But according to the Small Arms Survey, Yau Yau was also motivated by personal ambitions; his faction has been blamed for cattle raids and revenge attacks in his home state of Jonglei.
A 13-year-old former fighter with the group said in a statement released by UNICEF that he joined the Cobra Faction after rival groups killed his sister, uncle and other family members. "But life in Cobra is not good — we have to walk so much, sometimes three or four days, carrying heavy equipment. I really want to go to school now. I have never been to school, and after I finish school I want to help the people in my community — to help them get food. If I had children I would never let them be soldiers."
Additional reporting by Hannah Strange
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