According to UNICEF there are 250,000 children forced to fight in wars and armed conflicts around the world. On this Red Hand Day for Child Soldiers we talk to a teenage survivor from South Sudan
As part of their campaign calling for the release of all child soldiers, UNICEF, the world’s leading organisation working for children in danger, is focusing its attention on Africa’s South Sudan this year. Red Hand Day (12 February) is an annual commemoration drawing attention to the plight of these children and teenagers forced to serve as soldiers across the globe.
Girls are often at risk to many abuses – subjected to sexual violence and falling pregnant underage – they are usually recruited as armed fighters, lookouts, cooks, messengers and spies. And for the ones who are eventually freed, many face stigma and isolation back home. They also have physical health issues (damage related to intercourse, STDs and HIV) and psychological trauma.
One such girl is Margret*. Just like many former child soldiers in South Sudan, Margret doesn’t know exactly how old she is, citing ‘sixteen,’ as an unsure answer. But under her orange cotton T-shirt, stained with dirt and sweat, is a small fragile frame. In the past three years, Margret’s whole world has been ripped apart. She’s gone from child to child soldier, and today she is struggling to catch up on the life she has missed – lost somewhere inbetween her years and her responsibilities. And in her arms she is carrying her one-year-old son Moses*. Although he was conceived by rape – from her time held captive by fighters in the bush – Moses is her baby, her son that she loves unconditionally. Her hope for a brighter future.
Her nightmare started more than three years ago. Margret tells Marie Claire that she was walking to a market where she sold cassava leaves when she was abducted by a group of men on a dirt road outside her village. ‘They grabbed me. They beat and slapped me as I tried to resist. They told me I had to go with them,’ Margret recalls. ‘They forced me.’
The next day, barely a teenager, Margret was raped for the first time in what was a continuous cycle for her as a child soldier. ‘I looted, killed and fought without any fear,’ she admits. ‘When I put on the uniform, I felt nothing could happen to me. I felt powerful.’
A few months before Margret gave birth to her son, access to her camp was granted to UNICEF – after being negotiated by the charity and government agencies. ‘The commanders were not happy – they considered us soldiers and wanted us to stay soldiers,’ Margret explains. Suddenly during a stormy day, Margret and a dozen other children were told to ‘go home.’ In bare feet they walked through dense jungle for days.
When she finally made it home she discovered her parents had been killed by a militia group, and so sought refuge in her uncle’s home. Months later, Moses was born. ‘I don’t see the baby as one of the perpetrators. He is my new start. I’m no longer fighting, I’m looking after my child.’
To her captors, she says defiantly, ‘Look at me now, I am living fine. I have returned and started a new life.’
* Names have been changed
* How you can help children like Margret: for more information on UNICEF’s work, and to donate, see unicef.org.uk