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A joint verification team heading to Bentiu in search of children serving with armed forces.
A joint team from South Sudan’s government and opposition forces has arrived in South Sudan’s northern town of Bentiu, on a verification mission aimed at removing children from the country’s military ranks.
Along with officials from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, representatives of the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund, Unicef, and the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission are part of the travelling party.
“We want to show to everybody that we are committed and working jointly for the revitalized peace agreement,” says Major General Chaplain Khamis Edward, who heads the Child Protection Unit of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces and leads the verification team, before boarding the flight from the country’s capital Juba.
The process of extracting children from armed forces involves requesting the soldiers of each army unit to be visited over the next seven days to line up for a physical inspection.
“The team will have to go line by line, and when we see a child, then we can move that child out,” the Major General explains.
Thousands of children, boys and girls under the age of 18, have served the military since the decades-long war of South Sudan’s independence. Since civil war broke out in December 2013, they have also been used opposition forces.
A peace agreement signed in September last year stipulates that parties refrain from the “recruitment and/or use of child soldiers by armed forces or militia in contravention of international conventions.” Both parties have also signed a number of specific agreements and agreed on a national action plan to that effect.
Alfred Orono Orono, head of the peacekeeping mission’s Child Protection Unit, points out that this joint verification effort is unique, but will be followed by similar exercises in other parts of the country.
“For the first time people who have been fighting each other have agreed to work together, and they are showing it. They are sending a message to the people of South Sudan,” he says, and spells out that it is a message of unity between armed forces and the people to bring peace to the country, particularly to its long-suffering children and women.
The onset of the rainy season, which makes travelling along the precarious roads of the country, will not stop the verification team from getting its essential work done.
“We are looking at children going back to school. We are looking at internally displaced people returning to their homes, because the schools are now safe for their children, and the hospitals are now available to them,” the child protection chief says.
“I feel that there is no better time than this time,” agrees Major General David Nyang, representing South Sudan’s Opposition Alliance. “It is never too late to start and to achieve what we have not managed in the past eight months.”
Lieutenant General Wesley Samson, from the opposition forces and Chairperson of the Joint Transitional Security Committee, emphasized that it is not only the presence of children in the armed forces that will be verified.
“It [the verification team] can also address the grievances of civilians, like the removal of forces from civilian centres and schools,” he said.
On his part, Kuot Kuot Deng from the National Disarmament, Demobilization Commission noted that the verification of the presence of children in the military ranks is important ahead of the integration of soldiers into one national army, another key provision of the revitalized peace agreement.