Frontline Stories

Shaking off the shackles of the past

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Under the shade of the mango trees, blue steel tables are lined up. Boys in plastic chairs sit neatly around them. Games of dominoes or cards are unfolding. There is talk of a rematch of yesterday’s football game in the evening, jokes about who will win.

A little more than three months ago, this scene was unimaginable. Many of the teenage boys staying at this interim care centre were still associated with armed groups, engaged in one way or another in South Sudan’s conflict.

“In the bush, we spent the days carrying guns and worrying about when the enemies were coming next,” says 17-year-old Alex*, who was a soldier in an armed group. He was among 311 boys and girls released from various South Sudanese armed groups in February.

While the majority of the children released in February returned to the care of their families, those who had lost track of their families were placed in an interim care facility while family tracing took place.

“Life here is much better than in the bush. Here we can play and eat. We feel safe here,” Alex says.

To address the distress of what the boys might have experienced or witnessed when they were associated with the armed groups, social workers are stationed at the interim care facility every day and provide on-the-ground counselling and support.

“At first, the children were closed and reserved. But now they have opened up, they are friendly and interact freely with one another. Some are able to share their stories with the social workers that they have never told anyone before. They have taken the social workers to be their friends. They have opened up so much,” says Christine, one of World Vision’s social workers.

Still, there is more work to be done. About a quarter of the children in the interim care centre are dealing with depression and other mental health or psychosocial issues.

“They are thinking back to what happened in the bush. They have witnessed killing, they have lost track of their families and have been forced to do so many bad things. That has taken a toll on them,” Christine says. “Some have suicidal thoughts and need the help of a trained psychologist, who is on ground doing that.”

Angelo oversees the interim care centre for the more than 40 boys who stay there and has supervised them since the night they arrived. “These boys come from different backgrounds, have different experiences from their time in the bush and they are only teenagers,” Angelo says.

“At the start, there were always challenges, but things are getting better now. We have seen their behaviour change, we are expecting even more improvement that they will better adjusted a month from now,” he says.

For the children themselves, there is a real desire to move on from the past.

“I’m now in peace. I want to be a school boy,” Alex says.

Within this year, the children will return to their families or, in the case that a family member could not be found, be placed in the care of a foster family in their community. Opportunities for education and skills training are also offering the children hope for their future.

“I want to be South Sudan’s president,” Alex adds. “The first thing I would do is bring peace and education for everyone. Those two things are the most important.”

In South Sudan, World Vision is running a reunification and reintegration programme for 700 children formerly associated with armed groups.

*Name changed to protect identity

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