Continued violence and the impact of brutal fighting has taken an increasingly heavy toll on the lives of children in South Sudan, Ishmael Beah said this week, as the UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War wrapped up a one week visit to the country.
“The sheer level of brutality and the number of children directly involved in the fighting has only increased this year,” said Beah, a New York Times best-selling author of A Long Way Gone; memoirs of a boy solider and Radiance of Tomorrow, A Novel.
In 1991, the outbreak of a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone upended the lives of millions of children, including Ishmael Beah. His parents and two brothers were killed and he was forcibly recruited into the conflict at age 13. After two years, with UNICEF’s help, Beah was removed from the army and placed in a rehabilitation home in Freetown.
Beah travelled to South Sudan with UNICEF to meet with former child soldiers, along with different parties to the conflict so as to advocate for the release of child soldiers and their re-integration into their communities and families. A peace agreement was signed in August this year, but fierce fighting has continued in parts of South Sudan. Since the beginning of 2015, the situation for children has worsened, and there are now as many as 16,000 associated with armed forces or groups.
“This is not the life that the people of South Sudan dreamed of for their children when the country became independent four years ago,” said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF Representative in South Sudan. “Two years into this conflict we know all too well the heavy cost of conflict in terms of lives and opportunities lost.”
Since fighting broke out in December 2013:
• Around 900,000 children have been internally displaced;
• About 11,000 children have been separated from their parents;
• Nearly 400,000 children have seen their education disrupted;
• Some one million children are suffering from malnutrition; and
• Nearly 1,500 children have been killed.
But there are also glimmers of hope.
“Over the past week, I have met with former child fighters who have now laid down their weapons and they are clear about their wishes for the future,” said Beah. “They want peace, education and a better future. My own experience has shown me that if the political will is there, anything is possible.”
Beah travelled to Pibor State where he met with children previously associated with the Cobra Faction armed group. Earlier this year, Cobra released 1,755 children from its ranks following a peace agreement with the Government of South Sudan. UNICEF has helped provide these children with medical and psychological support, reunited them with their families and enrolled them in learning programmes.
With the conflict in South Sudan about to enter its third year, UNICEF renews its call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for all sides to uphold their commitments to the Peace Agreement including the release of children associated with armed groups or forces.
UNICEF also calls on all sides to allow humanitarian agencies to reach all those in need in accordance with international humanitarian law.