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. (Reuters)