Two hundred boys aged as young as 11, have been released by a South Sudanese militia group in a UNICEF brokered deal. Up to 3,000 more children are hoped to also return home in coming weeks.
This week, UNICEF and regional partners secured the release of approximately 3,000 children from a militia group in South Sudan, making this one of the largest ever demobilisations of child soldiers.
The first group of 280 children were released on January 27, in the village of Gumuruk in Jonglei State, eastern South Sudan.
The children surrendered their weapons and uniforms in a ceremony overseen by the South Sudan National Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission, and the Cobra Faction with the support of UNICEF.
International organisations estimate that 250,000 children are currently fighting in wars all over the world. Some estimates have put the figure as high as 300,000. It is believed that 40 percent of child soldiers are girls.
Today's release of children is a step in the right direction, but we cannot forget that thousands more have been recruited by all parties to the conflict.
Recruited by the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction, the released children are aged as young as 11. Some have been fighting for as long as four years and many have never attended school.
UNICEF South Sudan representative, Jonathan Veitch, said, "These children have been forced to do and see things no child should ever experience."
"The release of thousands of children requires a massive response to provide the support and protection these children need to begin rebuilding their lives."
In the last year, 12,000 children, mostly boys, have been recruited and used as soldiers by armed forces and groups in South Sudan as a whole.
Work is now beginning to trace the children's families. In a country where more than one million children have either been displaced internally or have fled to neighbouring countries since fighting broke out in December 2013, this will be a difficult task.
The children released from the Cobra Faction are being supported with basic healthcare and protection services and necessities such as food, water and clothing to assist them in assimilating back into family life.
Counselling and other psychological support programmes are urgently being established. The children are also expected to be given access to education and skills training programmes.
"The successful reintegration of these children back into their communities depends on a timely, coordinated response to meet their immediate and long-term needs. These programmes require significant resources," said Veitch.
An adult struggle
UNICEF estimates the costs for the release and reintegration of each child is approximately $2,330 for 24 months. UNICEF is appealing for an additional $10m in support. Donors include the EU and the German and United Kingdom National Committees for UNICEF.
John Towan, once a rebel leader, is now a peace and reconciliation adviser in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area, created by the government as part of its deal with Yau Yau. Towan is a former theology student who took up arms against the government in 2010 after failing to win a seat in parliament.
As the released boys sat under a tree and recited their rebel militia's military chant for the last time, fists punching the air, Towan wept.
"The song that you have sung, that is an adult struggle," he told now former child soldiers.
"You have been joining the army because most of our people have died... Uncles, brothers, fathers, mothers have all been killed."
Government and rebel forces have killed over 660 children and abducted more than 300 since December 2013, as well as committing sex crimes and attacking scores of schools and medical clinics, according to reports received by UNICEF.
South Sudan is one of seven countries where UNICEF is campaigning to end the recruitment of children as soldiers.
"Today's release of children is a step in the right direction, but we cannot forget that thousands more have been recruited by all parties to the conflict," said Leila Zerrougui, the UN's special representative for children and armed conflict.
Further phased releases of children will occur over the coming month.
A version of this article first appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news service
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies