Stories Of Joy And Sorrow: Recent Events In South Sudan

Published February 5, 2015

Over the past couple weeks, South Sudan has witnessed one event that must have brought indelible joy to many, and another that certainly has caused others sorrow and grief.

The story of joy and hope grows out of an entrenched problem within South Sudan: child soldiering. Last week, on January 27th, the South Sudanese Democratic Army freed 280 child soldiers. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), this was an initial release, and the armed group has agreed to release 3,000 in total. “These children have been forced to do and see things no child should ever experience,” said UNICEF South Sudan’s Representative, Jonathan Veitch. “The release of thousands of children requires a massive response to provide the support and protection these children need to begin rebuilding their lives.”

This release is unequivocally a reason to be glad, but it should not overshadow the reality that over 12,000 children, mostly boys, have been recruited into South Sudanese armed forces in the last year alone. Hopefully this initial gesture by the South Sudanese Democratic Army–composed mainly of those from the Murle tribe, will be a spark that encourages Salva Kiir’s government forces (the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) and Riek Machar’s armed group not to renege but to uphold their commitments in the summer of 2014 to release the child soldiers serving in their forces. Despite these assurances, South Sudan continues to be one of seven countries on the UN’s child soldier watch list, “Children, Not Soldiers.”

In addition to providing food, clothes, and shelter to this new influx of children as they seek to reintegrate into their communities, it is important to keep their long-term needs in sight. In particular, education is imperative. In an interview with NPR, Emmanuel Jal, who escaped two decades ago from his life as a child soldier and is now a musician, political activist, and actor in The Good Lie, commented on this release, “When they are disarmed, where are they going to go? Is there a place safe for them that the U.N. is going to keep them in? Where are their families? The best thing is get them to school. If they are not schooled, they’ll be at home. They’ll still get guns and go back. It’ll just be [a] publicity stunt.” Therefore, it is imperative for the international community to support them not only in relief aid, but also in educational opportunities, as Rebuild South Sudan seeks to do.

While this action by the Murle armed group brought with it a glimmer of hope, members of the same tribe earlier this week raided parts of the Jalle district, leaving five dead and hundreds of cattle stolen. The fighting did not extend to the part of Jalle where Rebuild South Sudan’s school building is being constructed. This raid is part of a feud that has lasted for decades between the Nuer, Dinka, and Murle tribes in Jonglei state; for example, in 2011 the Nuer raided the Murle tribe, killing nearly 70 people and stealing over 100,000 of their cattle, according to a New York Times article, while the Dinka raided and killed dozens of Murle in 2012, according to the Sudan Tribune.

Yet perhaps the glimmer of hope still shines through: despite the atrocities that this needless feud perpetuates, at least children are beginning to dissipate from the ranks of those fighting. Once again, it cannot be stressed enough: Rather than only letting these children be conscripted into tribal fighting once they return home, we must cast our sights on providing education opportunities for them, giving them the opportunity to grow, develop, and pursue their dreams.

In a BBC interview with several children released, one 12-year-old said, “I was scared for my life; I felt like I had to fight. I’d like to go to school now and be an administrator for Pibor county.” Another said, “I am no longer afraid. I want to school, become a pastor and help my village and family.”

We should help such children aspire to their dreams. In doing so, we may find an upshot of children pursuing their dreams is that current tribal animosities, feuds, and anger will fall by the wayside.

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