Child Soldiers

Child soldiers: The forgotten trauma of abducted children

In South Sudan, some 321 child soldiers are still being used in combat.
In South Sudan, some 321 child soldiers are still being used in combat. AFP/File

As the world marks the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, 12 February, experts say the issue of treating the psychological trauma of children abducted and forced to wage war is still not receiving the attention it needs.  

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“In order for children who were used by armed groups to rebuild their lives and create a future for themselves, they must receive psychosocial support and adequate treatment,” says Andrea Suley, the UN Children’s Fund representative in South Sudan.

Ugandan activist Victor Ochen knows this all too well — his brother was abducted by Dominic Ongwen, a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

“My own brother was abducted during an attack that was commanded by Ongwen, and up to now, he has not come back,” Victor Ochen told the Africa Calling podcast.

Ongwen was found guilty last week of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The charges against him included forcibly recruiting child soldiers.

Ongwen himself had earlier been abducted by the rebel group, but had risen in the ranks.

“In the bigger picture, the verdict is a very strong deterrent -- it doesn’t matter if you’re abducted as a child, and conscripted to become a killer, there’s a moment in life when you know what is right so you cannot hide behind a command chain,” Ochen said.

 “Ongwen had the power to walk away from the battlefield if he wanted to, but he took pleasure in causing all the pain, burning the camps, setting whole communities ablaze,” said Ochen, who has worked on promoting peace, and helping those who were affected by the war, both physically and psychologically.

As Executive Director of the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), Ochen has lived through the war in northern Uganda, including living as a refugee for 21 years, and considers rehabilitation important in healing society form the ground up.

“What we say as victims, as survivors, as people who directly lost, is different from what academics, politicians and intellectuals are talking about...what they’re carrying is not the same feeling of what we have on the ground,” he said.

South Sudan children suffering

In South Sudan, where conflict is ongoing, there have been signs of progress, according to the UN, noting that there has been a significant decrease of violations against children since September 2018.

“The United Nations verified more than 700 grave violations against children across the country, with the Central Equatoria state being the most affected region,” according to the UN Children in Armed Conflict division.

“The majority of violations were attributed to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO) and government security forces, including the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces,” it added, noting that 321 children are still being used as child soldiers.

“South Sudan has a broken mental health care system…however, much can be done at the community level, with close follow-up by social workers,” the report adds.

UNICEF put out a series of videos illustrating the nightmares some children still face after being abducted and forced conscription, showing the damaging effects of armed conflict on children directly facing atrocities.

Some children’s sleep patterns are affected, as well as behavior and ability to concentrate. “They often have difficulty in school, become irritated and aggressive, or become completely withdrawn,” according to UNICEF.

For Ugandan activist Ochen, who has lived among those in northern Uganda who have suffered the brunt of the war, justice at the ICC-- even if it took ‘too long’ in his words—was necessary for the people, even though many, he contends, despaired of ever seeing justice being done.

“Think about the damages—the mental, the psychological, the historical—and the trauma that has grown from one person to another,” he said.

“What I can say is the war, the war between the LRA and the government of Uganda did leave the country so wounded, the region is so torn apart. It needs to heal,” he added.

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