Yei workshop seeks to optimize ways of making South Sudanese army child free
“We are looking forward to the day when our army will have a positive image in the outside world, when we have a holistic relationship with our civil population and when South Sudan is no longer on the list of countries that support the recruitment and use of children by armed forces.”
Brigadier General Sebastian Lendi of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) in the Yei River area has a vision, and he knows what it will take to make it materialize.
“We are committed to halting the recruitment and use of children, to addressing issues of rape and other forms of sexual violence, to vacating schools we have occupied, to respecting national and international laws, to taking punitive actions against perpetrators of grave violations and to releasing all children identified within our ranks,” he says.
Alas, despite such stated commitments, also expressed by means of the signing of several agreements and action plans (some of which that have also been agreed by opposition forces) to that effect, the Brigadier General and his men and women in uniform still have a long way to go.
“We have documented several incidents falling under the scope of the six grave violations perpetrated by the country’s army, including recruitment and use of children, sexual violence, occupation and/or attacks against school, as well as killing and maiming,” says Vicky Waku Driciru, a Child Protection Officer serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. “We are very concerned that reports on grave violation-related incidents in Yei River area are still recurrent.”
This state of affairs has brought Vicky, her colleague Patricia Soares, a number of high-ranking army officers, local authorities and representatives of civil society organizations together for a workshop in Yei, aimed at tackling the status quo. They’ve got a lot on their plate, too.
“We are striving to concretize the prevention, halting, monitoring, reporting and response mechanisms - including accountability – for grave violations and abuses committed against children and open up a space for collaboration,” Ms. Soares explains.
The South Sudan army is listed, as indicated in the Annexes of the Secretary-General’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict, to be a persistent perpetrator of five of the six grave violations against children, including recruitment and use of children, killing and maiming, sexual violence and attacks against schools and hospitals.
“We must work towards coming out of this precarious situation,” says Lieutenant Colonel Michael Machar, a civil-military relations and liaison officer in the Yei river area, adding that the public has an important role to play.
“In case you see any children anywhere, please do report them to relevant institutions and authorities, so that action is taken. We are a country. We are responsible. We are also a member of the United Nations, so we are bound by international laws.”
Why, then, does the problem with children being used by armed forces persist? Mary Achiro, a 2nd Lieutenant in the government army, points out one of many factors.
“We understand the difficulties parents are going through today, but I am asking them to try their best to keep the children away from [army] barracks so that they are not mistakenly recruited and used,” she says, referring to the possible temptation of children to leave dire conditions in their homes behind.
The army’s goal of living up to its commitments may still be some way off, but that does not stop Lieutenant Colonel Michael Machar from aiming high.
“Our intention is to have a professional and conventional army that one day will be part and parcel of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in the region and the world at large.”