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South Sudan armed groups release hundreds of child soldiers

Armed groups involved in the South Sudan civil war released 311 child soldiers on Wednesday as part of phase one of a United Nations Mission in South Sudan(UNMISS) led peacekeeping and re-integration project.

According to Unicef about 19 000 children are still enlisted in South Sudan's warring groups. Image: UN

This was revealed at a ceremony held in the country’s conflict ridden south-western Yambio region. The project expects to free a total of 700 child soldiers from government aligned and rebel forces.

The children were released into the care of religious humanitarian group World Vision’s caseworkers who will offer vocational skills and other initiatives aimed at preventing them from being lured back to the bush.

Mesfin Loha, the organisation’s national director, told The Guardian that they are particularly concerned about how to restore a sense of hope to those who were victims of sexual violence.

Among the the group released on Wednesday are 82 girls who were held captive, some of whom were raped and used as cooks by the armed groups. An expected total of 220 girls will be freed through the Yambio project.

David Shearer, the UN’s special representative of the Secretary-General who heads UNMISS, said it will be the first time that so many young women have been released from active involvement in the South Sudan civil war.

“They will have endured suffering, including sexual abuse. It is vital that they receive the support they need to rejoin their communities and that they are welcomed home by family and friends without any sense of stigma.”

The civil war in South Sudan ensued two years after the country attained independence from Darfur on 9 July 2011 that led to the formation of a new government headed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Juba.

Growing factional tensions between the new country's President Salva Kirr and his former deputy Riek Machar reached a tipping point in December 2013 when Machar was accused of plotting a coup.

In response Machar fled and formed the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in opposition(SPLM/A - IO) aggravating the volatile situation in the country into a full blown civil war.

The return of children sucked into the conflict is among the first signs of the warring parties’ adherence to the latest ceasefire agreement brokered last month by the multi-state Intergovernmental Authority for Development(IGAD)in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The body consists of eight East African countries.

The agreement on cessation of hostilities between president Kirr’s transitional government and eight armed groups was meant to give a new lease of life to a 2015 peace agreement that was violated numerous times by the armed parties and to allow humanitarian organisations to operate freely.

In South Sudan's civil war girls are the target of abductions, rape and other forms of sexual violation. Image: UN

It is hoped that the release of child soldiers will bring to an end years of recorded recruitment, maiming, killing rape and abductions which have affected at least 28,788 children.

When the IGAD agreement became operational on christmas eve the parties committed to unconditionally demobilise any child enlisted in their forces and to release them to Unicef. All abducted women and children were to be handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The parties to the agreement faced increasing pressure to adhere to the deal with the US, Britain and Norway leading calls for field commanders and political leaders to be held to account in the case of violations.

The war in South Sudan has displaced more than two million people and forced a further 2,5 million to flee the country. The inability of humanitarian organisations to offer relief efforts resulted in the country taking almost a year and a half to stem a June 2016 cholera outbreak that has caused 436 deaths according to WHO.

The UN Children’s Fund says an estimated 19 000 children continue to serve in the ranks of South Sudan’s armed forces and rebel groups.

The fund says it needs US$45-million to support release, demobilization and reintegration efforts which will include providing at least three months’ worth of food assistance to the children’s families.

“Our priority for this group – and for children across South Sudan – is to provide the support they need so they are able to see a more promising future,” Mahimbo Mdoe said, Unicef’s Representative in South Sudan.

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