South Sudanese Child Soldiers Find Healing at Church
By Teresa Sfeir
Since the start of South Sudan’s civil war in 2013, armed forces have recruited up to 19,000 children. In 2018, 934 children were officially released, of whom almost 30 percent are girls. They have returned home shaken by guilt and shame and in need of intensive psychosocial support. Many of these children are now enrolled in vocational and educational programs.
In September of this year, Child Soldiers International in collaboration with UNICEF, interviewed 51 former female child soldiers. Several of them experienced horrific cruelty after being taken as “wives”. What haunted the girls most was not the violence they had to endure, but rather the violence they were forced to inflict on others.
Ne’ma, a fifteen-year-old girl who escaped the rebel forces says:
“My grandmother took me to church so that everyone could pray for me, so that I could forget about the bush [where she had been sexually abused]. It helped. Before I used to think about it, but now it has started to disappear.”
The South Sudanese Church has started several initiatives to help traumatized child soldiers and reintegrate them into society. For instance, the Catholic Church in South Sudan is running such programs. Barani Hiboro Kussala, President of the Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference (S.C.B.C.) stresses apprenticeships as a way to develop entrepreneurship skills for young people to have legitimate means of making a living.
Moreover, the signing of a peace deal between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar in September may herald a positive turn of events for the people of South Sudan, in addition to the signing of OPAC – the UN treaty outlawing the recruitment and exploitation of child soldiers. There is a glimmer of hope, but nothing is yet tangible.
In her April 2018 Regional Brief on South Sudanese child soldiers, Manal al-Tayyar alluded to Matthew 18:6 as a warning against the atrocities committed against children. It is a warning that stands the test of time.
At the beginning of Matthew 18, the disciples ask, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” At a time when children held low status in the community, Jesus held them up as an example for adults to follow if they wished to even enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He commends their “lowly position” as the desired norm. Later, in verse 10, he says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in Heaven.”
It is then utterly inexcusable to exploit children just because they are physically weaker, just because they are inexperienced, just because they are legally dependent, and just because one can.
Briefly put, do not lose heart. Christ followers who are disheartened by continuous violations against children, I encourage you to keep on fighting for the defenseless. Your toil is not in vain. The God of the universe, omniscient and omnipotent, is patient yet is not slow in keeping His promise. He will vindicate the righteous, and His wrath will come upon the workers of iniquity.
“Though it linger, wait for it;
It will certainly come
And will not delay”
(Habakkuk 2:3, NIV)