Hundreds of children seized by armed men from a village in South Sudan have generated fears that “they are going from the classroom to the front line,” says the top United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in that country who demanded their immediate release.
UNICEF, in a press release issued in Juba, South Sudan, reported that 89 children preparing for exams were forcibly recruited last month as child soldiers, but the agency now believes the number of children may be in the hundreds. In addition, adult males were also forcibly recruited during the raids that took place on 15 and 16 February.
Witnesses also stated many children have been seen in a training camp as young as 12 years old were seen carrying guns but not in uniform, according to UNICEF.
“We fear they are going from the classroom to the front line,” said UNICEF's Representative in South Sudan, Jonathan Veitch. “UNICEF appeals to [militia leader] Johnson Oloni to let those children go back to school and be with their families, immediately.”
Mr. Veitch also urged the Government of South Sudan to use whatever influence it had to secure the children's release.
UNICEF said it is confident that the armed group which took the children was a Shilluk Militia under the control of Johnson Oloni. This militia is aligned with the Government's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) forces, he added.
In an intensive information gathering exercise, both in Juba and in Upper Nile state where the seizures took place, UNICEF and its partners have tried to piece together what happened during and after the raid and to discover the location of the children.
One of the challenges hampering evidence gathering has been a heavy militia presence remaining in the area, making it impossible to receive first-hand information.
From reports received so far it is becoming clear the children are not together in a single group, UNICEF reports, saying that some of the children - including some of the school boys - were believed allowed back into their village to eat with their parents and in some instances some children were allowed to go to school. They were then taken away again at night.