Two South Sudanese rebel groups have freed 145 child soldiers in what the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) calls the largest release of child fighters since last year, according to BBC. The Cobra Faction and the SPLA in Opposition are the two main armed groups that have been fighting South Sudanese government forces since 2013, when the current civil war began.
The 145 are among the more than 16,000 South Sudanese children believed to be involved in the ongoing war, UNICEF reports.
“Our hope is that today’s release will be followed by many others,” Mahimbo Mdoe, the head of UNICEF in South Sudan, said in a statement.
Since the war broke out three years ago, humanitarian organizations have been working with the government-run National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission to secure the release of child soldiers.
UNICEF has also been working closely with local communities to ensure full reintegration of the released child fighters. The organization says it hopes to give the children new livelihoods and education opportunities.
“Our priority is to get them into school and to provide services to communities so the children are able to see a more promising future,” Mdoe said.
Since December 2013, South Sudan, which is the world’s youngest nation, has been paralyzed by a civil war that has left hundreds of people dead and millions of others displaced.
Fighting broke out after President Salva Kirr fell out with his first vice president, now-turned rebel leader Riek Machar who was accused of planning a coup.
According to UNICEF, the war has displaced close to 1 million children and separated another 13,000 from their families. The conflict has prevented more than half of the country’s children from attending school, which is the largest number of children who are out of school in the world.
As traditional social structures in South Sudan continue to fall, children are left vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Hunger is also a major reason why many children in the East African nation are joining armed groups.
According to Human Rights Watch, child soldiers are normally used as bodyguards by their senior officers and are often required to cook, clean, and in some instances, protect their commanders.
“In other cases, children work as servants/bodyguards during times of relative calm but fight together with their soldiers.”