Helping children forced to fight

A former child soldier is now back at home in Yambio, South Sudan.
South Sudan 2019 © Alex McBride/MSF
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In South Sudan’s Yambio county, children and teenagers who were forced to fight during the country’s long civil war are struggling to regain their lives.

Child soldiers are prized by their adult commanders for following orders without understanding the impact of their actions. These young combatants are often traumatized, having been separated from their families and forced into a life of violence and hard labor.

To help these former child soldiers reintegrate into society, MSF launched a mental health support program to help them come to terms with their experiences. In the second half of 2018, a group of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including MSF, began working to help these children return to their communities. So far, 983 children have been demobilized in Yambio.

It’s not just post-traumatic stress or flashbacks that can lead to mental health problems—many demobilized children are also fearful of an uncertain future. They are scared they will not be accepted by their communities and worry about what they will do with their lives.

Former child soldiers do not always receive a warm welcome, as their families and neighbors are often afraid too. Some armed groups used child soldiers to loot supplies and collect protection money from communities, and to punish those who would not pay.

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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.