Three hundred South Sudanese child soldiers have been released to the UN, and 400 more are expected to be freed in coming weeks, as peace talks progress in Ethiopia.

By Joe McDonough

Posted on February 8, 2018

Militias in South Sudan released more than 300 child soldiers on Wednesday, the start of a process that should see more than 700 kids freed to return to their homes within the coming weeks.

The released children will be reunited with their families and provided with food assistance for three months, as well as psychosocial support, and the opportunity to attend school. And those whose families can’t be traced will be taken to care facilities.

Since the civil war began five years ago, an estimated 19,000 children have been recruited into the fighting, mostly by force but some to avoid starvation. And this mass release of 87 girls and 224 boys during the ‘laying down of the guns’ ceremony, is understood to be the second largest of its kind.

The United Nations has released almost 2,000 child soldiers so far, and more than 200 of those have been under the age of 13. However, armed groups are continuing to recruit children far more frequently than humanitarians can free them, despite the government publicly condemning the practice.

“The continued recruitment and use of children by the military and opposing armed groups points to the utter impunity that reigns in South Sudan, and the terrible cost of this war on children,” Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a new report this week.

Nevertheless, South Sudan’s First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, said the release was an important step towards peace in his ceremony address.

Mahimbo Mdoe, the representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund in South Sudan agreed, saying — “It is vital that negotiations continue so there are many more days like this.”

And while aid workers share the optimism as peace talks continue in Ethiopia, mediated by a regional bloc, they are also wary that one flare-up could see the children rounded up again.

“If peace isn’t sustained and people are forced to the bush, we’ll lose these children,” said Anne Hadjixros, a child protection officer with UNICEF.

But there is plenty of pressure internationally for South Sudan to end its brutal war, which began two years after South Sudan gained its independence, and resulted in four million citizens fleeing their homes.

“You, collectively, by your personal and political interests are responsible for the nightmare your own people are going through,” Ethiopia’s foreign minister Workneh Gebeyehu told the nation’s delegates gathered at the talks hosted by the IGAD regional bloc.

“You have had numerous opportunities to change directions. You have repeatedly failed to do so. This really is the very last chance for you to accept your responsibilities and take the necessary actions to ensure South Sudanese peace and prosperity,” Workneh said.

It is understood most of the children were released by the South Sudan National Liberation Movement, a rebel group that signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016, while nearly 100 children were released from the ranks of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), the biggest opposition group, which is led by Riek Machar.

What these child soldiers were subjected to

Some of the freed Sudanese children have opened up about their time enslaved to the armed groups, and the stories are nothing short of horrifying.

ABC News shared 17-year-old Christopher’s nightmare.

The boy had been abducted from his home at the age of 10 by a rebel army, during a period of localised fighting prior to the outbreak of the civil war.

His mother bravely entered the bush camp and pleaded with his commanders to release him.

Instead, they gave Christopher an ultimatum.

“When she came they told me to shoot her or I’d be killed instead,” the boy said. “I had no option, I just asked God to forgive me.”

Incredibly, when he pulled the trigger, the first time he had ever done so, it jammed, and his mother was allowed to leave the camp.

He says his family has forgiven him, as he prepares to return home.

Reuters listened to 14-year-old Bakhita, relive a traumatic two years since she was snatched from her family’s farm.

“I was thinking of my family every day. Sometimes, I cried but I couldn’t escape, the soldiers were everywhere in the bushes,” she told the news agency from the town of Yambio, where the handover to the UN took place.

“There’s no house. We sleep in a tent. Sometimes at night, some soldiers come to my place and want to rape me by force. If I resist, they will beat me and make me cook for a week as a punishment for refusing to sleep with them,” she said, beginning to cry.