Demobilising South Sudan's child soldiers

MSF's Silvia Márque believes recover for the former child soldiers is possible. Picture: MSF

Across South Sudan, children have been used as soldiers, leading to 3,100 becoming demobilised, according to Unicef.

Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders (MSF) are providing medical and mental health support for the 983 demobilised children in the city of Yambio, Western Equatoria.

The majority of patients are aged between 15 and 17, and their youngest is just 10-years-old.

MSF Mental Health Activity Manager Silvia Márque. Picture: MSF.
MSF Mental Health Activity Manager Silvia Márque. Picture: MSF.

35% of the former child soldiers at the MSF centre have post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, while others experience recurrent flashbacks and intrusive thoughts of suicide and self-harm.

MSF Mental Health Activity Manager Silvia Márquez said that the majority of children were abducted whilst on their way to school, or to work in the fields.

"While most of the former child soldiers have been welcomed back by their families, for others it has been a challenge to find their relatives, who may have been displaced by the conflict or may have died.

Teenagers from Yambio, including former child soldiers, warm up ahead of a football game. Picture: MSF
Teenagers from Yambio, including former child soldiers, warm up ahead of a football game. Picture: MSF

"Others are seen as a burden. In communities where the conflict had a major impact, some children have experienced rejection and fear they will never be accepted.

"Most are now back at school while also working, either in agriculture or helping their younger brothers in their family’s garden. Some have even got married."

The team at MSF is made up of approximately 100 people, who use relaxation techniques to treat symptoms such as anxiety and fear, and carry out group activities and psychoeducation.

In addition, the team organise recreational activities such as football matches and painting, but Márquez insists it is far from easy for them.

Women plait the hair of a former child soldier in Yambio, south Sudan. Picture: MSF
Women plait the hair of a former child soldier in Yambio, south Sudan. Picture: MSF

"When their daily life gets complicated, some children think about rejoining an armed group – not for the fact of belonging to it, but thinking that fighting will give them access to better resources and services.

"On these occasions, it is very gratifying to link them to the services provided by other organisations, such as ensuring that they can enrol in school, which helps them to feel an active part of the community."

Ms Márquez said that people ask her whether recovery is possible, and she believes it is.

"You see children and adolescents who have experienced enormous difficulties and trauma but who are looking forward to becoming productive members of their communities. I’ve been very moved by this.

"Most of these children want to marry, have a job, return to their families. The therapeutic process enables them to achieve these goals. Their parents and relatives also recognise its benefits. A sign of this is the high number of follow-up sessions and the fact that two-thirds of our discharged patients successfully complete their treatment.

"Human beings are very resilient and have the capacity to focus not on the difficult moments of the past but on their future goals and to find happiness again.”

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