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Hundreds of child soldiers were released in South Sudan on Tuesday, UNICEF said, as part of a broader plan to free up to 3,000 young fighters from the country's civil war.
The release of 300 kids in Pibor, Jonglei State, is part of a peace deal between the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
An initial 280 children, aged between 11 and 17, were released late January. UNICEF said between 2,000 and 3,000 should be freed from the Cobra Faction as it integrates into the SPLA.
The use of child soldiers in South Sudan surged after civil war broke out in December 2013, with UNICEF estimating the number to have peaked somewhere around 12,000. Violence was so rife that many of the children joined the Cobra Faction for protection, according to UNICEF spokeswoman Doune Porter.
“They thought they would be safer in the ranks of the military where they were surrounded by people with guns, and of course many of them were trained in how to use guns,” she said.
However, Porter said the children found life extraordinarily difficult were now “delighted” to be leaving the Cobra Faction.
“I don’t want to be a soldier,” one boy, aged 12, told UNICEF. “I will end up with nothing by being a soldier and I know one day I’ll get killed if I continue being a soldier. First, I want to go to school, then later I want to study medicine.”
Cobra Faction Lieutenant General Khalid Butrus Bura said there was no longer any need for the children to be among their ranks.
“We want to change the mind-set of the community, so that a father will not need to buy gun and give it to a 10-year–old child so he can take care of the cattle,” he told UNICEF. “We want to change that practice so that the community can send their children to school rather than taking to a gun.”
Porter said the children would now receive counseling and a much sought after education.
“Many of them have never been to school before,” she said. “Most of them can’t read or write and they are so excited about starting their education.”
UNICEF estimates more than 1.9 million people have been displaced since the civil war broke out, with more than 1.4 million currently displaced within South Sudan. More than half of those internally displaced people are estimated to be children.