"Reintegration is the most difficult part of the release process," officials say
19,000 children serving in the ranks of armed forces and groups in South Sudan
More than 200 child soldiers have been freed in South Sudan, according to UNICEF.
One hundred and twelve boys and 95 girls, some as young as 14, were freed at a special ‘laying down of arms ceremony’ organized by UNICEF Tuesday in the town of Yambio, in the south west of the country.
The UN agency said it hoped to release around 1,000 more child soldiers in coming months and has freed more than 500 child soldiers so far this year.
Thousands of children have been forced to join the military and other armed groups in South Sudan since the oil-rich country became engulfed in civil war in 2013.
Around 19,000 children are serving in the ranks of armed forces and groups in the country, according to figures released by the organization.
Abducted to fight
One of the boys, George, 17, freed at an earlier ceremony in February told UNICEF he was abducted by an armed group in 2015.
The group forced him to steal, rape women and girls, and on occasion he was ordered to kill, the UN agency said.
“I did not want to do any of these things, but if I didn’t I was scared they would kill me,” he told UNICEF.
“No child should be made to carry guns or weapon,” UNICEF Representative in South Sudan Mahimbo Mdoe told CNN.
Mdoe said those released will be reunited with their families, given psychosocial support along with the opportunity to go to school.
Putting down weapons is the first journey in the recovery process but leading normal lives is even more difficult for the children, he added.
“Reintegration is the most difficult part of the release process,” Mdoe told CNN.
“Many are happy when these children are released, but they forget about them when they are reunited with their families. This is the time they can be vulnerable and they may go back.”
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has been embroiled in a violent civil conflict for nearly its entire existence.
For several years, soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with forces loyal to his ousted vice president, Riek Machar, displacing millions of civilians and killing tens of thousands. The two groups are largely split along ethnic lines.
The UN agency called on all parties involved in the conflict to “end the recruitment of children” as soldiers and uphold their rights in accordance with international laws.
The children were recruited by South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SSNLP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SLPA) the statement said.
Armed forces and opposition groups in the east-central African country continue to recruit child soldiers despite numerous commitments to stop, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
Some of the children were abducted and forced to commit “violent crimes”, the report said.
According to the United Nations, more than one million children have left South Sudan to neighboring countries due to escalating conflicts.