Bakhita was only 12 years old when rebels snatched her from her family’s farm, adding her to a grim list of almost 19,000 children that the United Nations says have been recruited, often by force, by armed groups in South Sudan’s brutal civil war.
“I was thinking of my family every day. Sometimes, I cried but I couldn’t escape, the soldiers were everywhere in the bushes,” Bakhita told Reuters in a soft voice from the western town of Yambio, where she was among hundreds of children handed over to the U.N. on Wednesday.
She had been with the rebels two years, she said.
“There’s no house. We sleep in a tent. Sometimes at night, some soldiers come to my place and want to rape me by force. If I resist, they will beat me and make me cook for a week as a punishment for refusing to sleep with them,” the 14-year-old said, beginning to cry.
More than 300 children, 87 of them girls, were released by armed groups in Wednesday’s ceremony – the start of a process which the U.N. says is expected to see at least 700 children freed in the coming weeks.
But militias are recruiting children faster than humanitarians can free them.
Many, like Bakhita, are kidnapped at gunpoint. Others choose to join, lured by food and protection in a country whose economy has been wrecked by conflict and hyperinflation. Pockets of the nation plunged into famine last year.
“I didn’t kill. My commander was nice to me. I was given a gun to protect myself and people around me,” said Henry, a short 16-year-old rebel recruit with unkempt hair who wore battered open-toe sandals.
But even his hurried interview hinted at underlying trauma.
“The sound of the gun has affected my brain, I need something to help my brain recover,” he said hesitantly.
Oil-rich South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation when it won independence from Sudan in 2011. Civil war broke out two years later, eventually forcing a third of the 12-million strong population to flee their homes.
The conflict has spawned ethnic killings. Many top military chiefs are Dinka, the same ethnic group as President Salva Kiir Mayardit, and many rebels are Nuer, the ethnic group of former vice president Riek Machar. Many smaller groups have carved out territory controlled by their own militias. Gang rapes and attacks on civilians are common.
Mahimbo Mdoe, the representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund in South Sudan (UNICEF), said the mass release of children was the biggest in three years.
“It is vital that negotiations continue so there are many more days like this,” he said in a statement.
Most of the children were released by the South Sudan National Liberation Movement, a rebel group that signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016. Nearly 100 children were released from the ranks of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), the biggest rebel group, which is led by Machar.
Some had previously escaped and been reunited with their families, but had not been able to get any support.
UNICEF plans to provide the children with civilian clothes, counselling, food assistance and vocational training as it tries to reunite them with their families. Those whose families can’t be traced will be taken to care facilities.
Among those facing an uncertain future is 17-year-old Justin, who become a bodyguard for a senior commander, after rebel forces attacked his home village in Zahra, near Yambio, in 2017. Justin said he burned his army uniforms to help erase traumatic memories.
“A lot of bad things happened when I was in the bush. If you don’t go and steal, you wouldn’t have something to eat, when the government force attacked us, we would be on the run the whole day fighting with nothing to eat,” he said. “I don’t have clothes to wear, even this shoes, I stole them from someone.”
“I am the only one left. My mother died and my father went to Bentiu but he didn‘t come back. I am only hearing he was killed in the war because he’s a soldier. I don’t want to work in the army (militia) anymore.”