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Hunger Drives Sudanese Children to Return to Military

South Sudan – When Timothy was forced into the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) at age 11, the first thing they did was beat him. Then they took him to a military base where his tasks were to carry other soldiers’ bags, wash their clothes, collect firewood for them, and cook their food. Getting fed himself was tough for Timothy.

South Sudan – When Timothy was forced into the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) at age 11, the first thing they did was beat him. Then they took him to a military base where his tasks were to carry other soldiers’ bags, wash their clothes, collect firewood for them, and cook their food.

Getting fed himself was tough for Timothy.

“They didn’t give me enough food,” he told IPS. “We depended on the food that we collected from the community. We didn’t have special food from the SPLA. I suffered a lot.”

Timothy is one of 91 children demobilised from southern Sudan’s army at the end of April.

In 2005, a peace agreement was signed to end the two decade-long civil war between the mostly Arab Muslim north and the predominantly Christian Black African south. The accord required a demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration effort to allow the estimated 12,000 children then serving in the north’s and south’s armies to return home.

More than five years later, the United Nations named the SPLA in a May 2010 report as a “persistent violator” of rules against children in armed conflict. The U.N. found that 33 former child soldiers had been demobilised last year only to be re-recruited by the south’s army.

A report issued in June by the research organisation Small Arms Survey said that progress towards demobilisation has been “slow.” The report also claimed the communities receiving ex-combatants are struggling with the economic and social burden.

About 900 children are still serving in the south’s military, down from an estimated three thousand in 2005.

“Even now they [soldiers] give me a call and tell me I can come back to the army,” says one former child soldier in Unity State, who was demobilised two years ago at the age of 15. He told IPS he won’t go back, because he wants to stay with his family.

Hunger Driving Children Back

George Gatloy Koang, the deputy head of the Southern Sudan Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration Commission (SSDDRC) in Unity State, said the SPLA doesn’t need to recruit children anymore.

However, he did tell IPS that his state’s commission found three children who returned to the barracks on their own last year because they didn’t have anything to eat at home.

“Getting food is very difficult,” said Koang. “So when a child moves from where he’s getting food easily and whatever [in the military], then he goes and he fails [to eat] for something like two days, a day without food, then he has to think of going back.”

Sometimes, military officials report the children who return to the barracks to the demobilisation commission but sometimes they don’t, according to Koang.

If a child is lacking food there’s no way to chase him out of the military, he explained. “So that’s why when the children try to move to the SPLA barracks, then they will be kept there… because they are getting food.”

“It isn’t because of recruitment,” Koang continued. “It is just helping them.”

When the commission does find out about children who have returned to their unit, officials go to the barracks to get them out of the military. The SPLA signed an action plan last year with the U.N. to get all children out of its ranks before December 2010.

More Support Needed

However, the director of Unity State’s SSDDRC, Charles Machieng, said the demobilisation commission doesn’t have the resources to provide adequate material support to the demobilised children. The government relies on international organizations like the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) to provide families with food for the returned children.

WFP reports that the number of people in southern Sudan needing food assistance more than quadrupled from about one million in 2009 to 4.3 million this year due to conflict and drought. A “volatile security situation,” according to the organisation’s website, “means that many people lack access to food and in farming areas many fields cannot be harvested.”

According to the U.N., an estimated 90 percent of people in southern Sudan live on less than a dollar a day; hunger is a reality for many.

The demobilisation commission is asking the international community to provide more to keep the children from returning to the barracks.

Bismarck Swangin, a communications officer for UNICEF in Southern Sudan, said the southern Sudan government needs to devote more of its budget to social services like health and education to help the returning child soldiers.

The Government of Southern Sudan’s 2010 budget, which totals about $3.3 billion, allocates seven percent to education and four percent to health. This is an 11 percent and eight percent increase from 2009, which according to the government, “reflect[s] the focus this year on delivery of basic services.”

For UNICEF, it’s not enough. Security and military forces receive 37 percent of the budget.

“We are aware of the challenges,” Swangin told IPS. “But I think there is an opportunity to do more. I think the government needs to step up in terms of allocating more resources.”

“To alleviate the costs, UNICEF and the South’s government are now relying on a community support-based program, which provides educational, health, and legal services to communities to be able to strengthen their capacity to take in these children who are coming back,” Swangin explained.

They focus on the community because the needs of the children who are coming back from the army are the same as the needs of many other children, he added.

Overall, Swangin said he thinks the demobilisation process “is working but sometimes not up to expectations.”

Timothy is lucky. His family has the financial security to feed him on a regular basis. The ex-combatant has no desire to return to the military. As part of his demobilisation, WFP provided three months supply of food to help his family with the additional costs of feeding another child.

Timothy’s uncle, Francis, told IPS he’s sending Timothy and his other children to school, “because after they complete their education, they will [have to] feed themselves alone, really.”

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