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Child soldiers ‘too hungry’ to reintegrate

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When Timothy was forced into the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) at age 11, the first thing they did was beat him.

Then they took him to a military base where his tasks were to carry other soldiers’ bags, wash their clothes, collect firewood and cook their food.

“They didn’t give me enough food. We depended on the food that we collected from the community. We didn’t have special food from the SPLA. I suffered a lot,” he lamented.

Timothy is one of 91 children demobilised from southern Sudan’s army at the end of April.

In 2005, a peace agreement was signed to end the two decade-long civil war between the mostly Arab Muslim north and the predominantly Christian Black African south.

The accord required a demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration effort to allow the estimated 12 000 children then serving in the north’s and south’s armies to return home.

More than five years later, the United Nations named the SPLA in a May 2010 report as a “persistent violator” of rules against children in armed conflict. The UN found that 33 former child soldiers had been demobilised last year only to be re-recruited by the south’s army.

A report issued in June by the research organisation Small Arms Survey said progress towards demobilisation has been “slow”.

The report also claimed the communities receiving ex-combatants are struggling with the economic and social burden.

About 900 children are still serving in the south’s military, down from an estimated 3 000 in 2005.

“Even now they (soldiers) give me a call and tell me I can come back to the army,” says one former child soldier in Unity State, who was demobilised two years ago at the age of 15.

He said he will not go back, because he wants to stay with his family. George Gatloy Koang, the deputy head of the southern Sudan demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration commission in Unity State, said the SPLA does not need to recruit children anymore.

However, he said his state’s commission found three children who returned to the barracks on their own last year because they did not have anything to eat at home.

“Getting food is very difficult,” said Koang. “So when a child moves from where he is getting food easily and whatever (in the military), then he goes and he fails (to eat) for something like two days, a day without food, then he has to think of going back.”

Sometimes, military officials report the children who return to the barracks to the demobilisation commission but sometimes they do not, according to Koang.

When the commission does find out about children who have returned to their unit, officials go to the barracks to get them out of the military.

The SPLA signed an action plan last year with the UN to get all children out of its ranks before December 2010.

However, the demobilisation commission does not have the resources to provide adequate material support to the demobilised children.

The government relies on international organisations like the World Food Programme (WFP) to provide families with food for the returned children.

WFP reports that the number of people in southern Sudan needing food assistance more than quadrupled from about one million in 2009 to 4,3 million this year due to conflict and drought.

According to the UN, an estimated 90% of people in southern Sudan live on less than a dollar a day; hunger is a reality for many.

The demobilisation commission is asking the international community to provide more to keep the children from returning to the barracks.

Bismarck Swangin, a communications officer for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in southern Sudan, said the region’s government needs to devote more of its budget to social services like health and education to help the returning child soldiers.

Southern Sudan’s 2010 budget, which totals about $3,3 billion, allocates 7% to education and 4% to health.

This is an 11% and 8% increase from 2009, which according to the government, “reflects the focus this year on delivery of basic services”.

For Unicef, it’s not enough. Security and military forces receive 37% of the budget.

“We are aware of the challenges,” Swangin said.

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