Part of the reintegration process involves helping communities to better understand the circumstances of the children while in armed captivity. “Some of the children carry the burden of guilt,” says Carol Mwakio Wawud, an MSF psychologist with the program. “This is not just about something they might have done or seen while in uniform. Some still feel guilty about being captured and being taken from their families. In their minds, it was their fault.”
Mwakio and other MSF mental health staff try to help these children understand that they were not entirely responsible for their actions while in uniform. “We remind them that their commanders were the ones who were in charge and forced them to commit atrocities. This was a period of their life when they had no control, but now the future offers lots of possibilities,” she explains.
Trust is at the heart of the relationship between the counselors and their young clients. “Every detail is taken into consideration to make the psychological consultations for these sensitive cases as comfortable as possible,” says Mwakio. “Our aim is to show them that they have regained control over their own lives.”
South Sudan’s health care system, battered by years of conflict, is ill-equipped to care for demobilized child soldiers, and there are very few local mental health professionals who can look after their needs. That’s why MSF is training South Sudanese staff members to serve as counselors. Their assistance is sorely needed. UNICEF estimates that some 19,000 children are still being held by armed groups in South Sudan and need to be demobilized.