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Sudan: 20,000 Child Soldiers Have Been Demobilized

Sudan: 20,000 Child Soldiers Have Been Demobilized, Says UN Official

About 20,000 former child soldiers have been demobilized from rebel groups in southern Sudan since 2001, but an estimated 17,000 young combatants remain and their reintegration could be hampered by prevailing poverty and discrimination, a paper co-authored by a United Nations official says.

The paper says the demobilization of so many child solders since 2001 has been a relatively straightforward process because locals were willing to accept them because they viewed their cause as a popular struggle. The child soldiers had also usually been based close to their original homes.

Published in the latest edition of the journal Forced Migration Review, the paper is written by UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) protection officer Una McCauley and independent consultant Chris Robertson.

Demobilization has been taking place since 2001 as the civil war in southern Sudan, which has been raging since 1983, begins to wind down in anticipation of a peace agreement.

Evaluating the demobilization, which was initially conducted by UNICEF but later by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan People's Democratic Front (SPDF), the authors argue that many child soldiers had already deserted from the army or rebel groups.

Reunification with families was a key incentive, many children said, as well as the opportunity to regularly attend school or to escape the inherent risks and rigidity of serving in an armed force.

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But the paper says that poverty - cited by child soldiers as one of the main reasons for joining up in the first place - remains a problem, with returning children viewed in many cases as simply an extra mouth to feed.

The authors call for targeted assistance for demobilized child soldiers, although they acknowledge that those children were often better off than their counterparts in the general population, who "exhibited obvious signs of malnutrition, were barefoot" and had few clothes.

They also say it will be much more difficult for the remaining child soldiers to reintegrate as they are more likely to have experienced urban life, enjoyed some kind of income while fighting or fought for the "wrong side" in the conflict.

Child soldiers who have fought with government forces or allied militias may have also converted to Islam, and local leaders in the south, where most of the population holds either Christian or indigenous beliefs, have told the authors they are concerned about this and may seek to "re-convert" the children.

"Others blame the demobilized children for rising crime and localized conflict and suggest that priority needs to be given to increasing the capacity of the police and the prison service," the authors state.

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