Hope for conflict-affected children through agriculture in South Sudan

by Elizabeth Harrop

22 October 2015

At just 10 years of age, Baba* worked as a cook for the South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction armed group. When war broke out in December 2013, he was forced to move with the military, away from his family in Pibor. Baba was separated from his family for nearly two years, during which time his mother Ngadok* thought she may never see her son again.

Ngadok comments: “I felt he was going to die, as the aim of fighting is always to kill. When he was released I was crying tears of joy at having my boy back. Part of me was missing all the time he was away.”

Baba, now aged 13, found it equally hard: “I was very far from my family. The hardest things being away from home were missing my parents and the lack of food”.

Release of children from armed groups

The conflict in South Sudan has seen around 17,000 children recruited into armed groups where they experience unimaginable suffering as forced combatants, sex slaves, porters, or cooks. UNICEF has so far assisted with the release of 1,755 children and supported them with reintegration back into their communities.

The family were reunited in 2015 and are rebuilding their lives after Baba’s long absence. Ngadok was herself in the military, she explains: “I fled to Kakuma refugee camp and when I returned I also joined the military. I boiled water and cooked. I saw many women killed and joined to avoid being killed myself.”

UNICEF are supporting Baba and hundreds of other children releases from armed groups by giving them psychosocial support, access to education and sustainable livelihoods. Baba has been given two goats to help support the family and he is part of an agricultural scheme to provide his family with a sustainable food source and income from growing vegetables.

Learning about agriculture

Pibor sits on a river and has a fish market, so Baba can also use his boyhood skill of making fishing nets to add fish to the family table.

In all, UNICEF are supporting 350 children in Pibor, aged 13-17, with an agricultural programme which will expand to cover most children in the area. Water is pumped from the river into gardens for the children to tend in groups. There are also school gardens and demonstration gardens linked to centres for adolescents.

UNICEF and partners are supporting 350 child beneficiaries (age 14 and older) with an agricultural programme which will expand to cover interested released children and selected vulnerable children in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA). The children are organised in groups of 10, five released children and five vulnerable children from the community. Each group is allocated one quarter of a feddan garden (just over one acre) by the riverside for vegetable production. Using treadle pumps, water is pumped from the river into gardens. There are also school gardens and demonstration gardens linked to centres for adolescents.

Before the onset of the rains, each group will be allocated two feddans of land for field crops. This will entail clearance and ploughing of virgin land in readiness for the rains. There will also be a need for amendment of the black cotton soils in the area that are highly compacted due to pastoralist livelihoods.

School garden Pibor croppedPatrick Musibi ‎Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF in Pibor comments: “Ultimately, the children will cultivate vegetables which need a short time to grow and therefore offer a quick return. The aim is that once a livelihood is secured for the family in this way, children will remain in the homestead and re-recruitment into armed groups will be minimised.”

Anthony M Wairegi, International Agriculture Specialist, at UNICEF partner ZOA comments: “If you are a good farmer, you will have enough to feed your family and have an income. The soil is productive and rich but difficult to work with. So we will be teaching the children and helping them experiment with the soil.”

Patrick Musibi, continues: “We will experiment with Biochar practises so that instead of slashing and burning vegetation to clear it, we will burn it with limited oxygen to carbonise it, then mix it with dung to enrich the soil. This is a low technology intervention which could be replicated in many regions. Other examples for long term conditioning of the soil include leaving old crops like sorghum to rot into the ground.”

Anthony Wairegi, adds: “Year by year the soil will become more workable. This activity is really foundational both for the soil and the children we are teaching. This is why it is so important to stick to a plot – a particular piece of land – and not move. As the land becomes more productive over time with these methods. Whereas if you are nomadic, you cannot reap the benefits with a new piece of land and instead have to start again each time.”

A new vision for the community

Gora Hassan Odiel, Head of Department, Agriculture and Forestry, GPAA, welcomes the UNICEF initiative: “Agriculture can be the backbone of the community. The land which can potentially be worked is a big area. It has never been developed due to the North South war which lasted 21 years followed by the civil war.

“This is a new vison for the community. Previously people focussed on being cattle traders and farmed a small location for a few months. Then when the rain finished they would move to where there is water. The youngest were not at school and were just sitting around. As pastoralists, if they did not have a cow they would turn to cattle raiding which was the cause of much conflict. With agriculture, society will be different. The values will change and those values associated with cattle raiding, and the violence from fighting with sticks and guns, will be left behind.”

Hon. David Okwier, Deputy Chief Administrator, GPAA, is also optimistic: “Almost all children released from armed groups are now at school and doing well. This has assisted with peace building in the area. Once young fellows have something to do, they do not think of raiding other areas. The Murle tribe are pastoralists and their traditions are not easy to give up. It is difficult to persuade them to focus on agriculture, but with small groups and the demonstration gardens we hope to expand this.”

Benefits of education

Baba has now started in year one at school, having never received an education before. UNICEF’s humanitarian response is going hand in hand with development, and UNICEF has recently reopened 10 schools in Pibor.

Education is a priority for children’s reintegration into their communities from armed groups and is linked to long term community investments and the provision of education for other children. This has the four-fold benefit of assisting all vulnerable children in a community, increasing the institutional capacity of education in a (post) conflict country, reducing the stigma attached to former child combatants, and helping to prevent recruitment of children into armed groups.

Oluku Andrew Holt, National Child DDR Coordinator, National DDR Commission South Sudan, comments: “Schooling for released children is very important. War has deprived people of education, so many are illiterate – they had to join the liberation movement instead of going to school. Generals in armed groups may not be educated, the illiteracy rate in armed groups is high.

“Children want to go to school and may never have had any schooling before. Education stops children associating themselves with the army or forming groups in the community to commit crimes. As they grow they will also see the benefits of education. If we can invest in children, in their education, they will become better people.”

Children from armed groups assets to their communities

As well as educating children, Patrick Musibi is also keen to allow children to teach others using the skills they acquired as members of armed groups. Patrick explains: “I know one young boy of 15 called Korok* who was in an armed group from the age of 12-14. He has already showed his commitment to education having swapped from a very local school to one further away as it had better teachers. He would rather walk kilometers and learn more.

“He shows the qualities of leadership and discipline which are two key traits acquired by children associated with armed groups. It is these children who are such assets to their communities and who will ultimately lead the agricultural livelihoods programme and create a better life for their communities.”

*Not real name

Photos: © UNICEF/ESARO 2015/Elizabeth Harrop

Liberty & Humanity

Children Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups (CAFAAG) in Pibor, South Sudan, learn to be children again upon their release, through forming a football team with other local children. The activity is part of UNICEF’s programme supporting children in the country.

Watch a short video of their team practise here.

ss football video


Read about children from South Sudan in Kakuma refugee camp: Four boys: From conflict in South Sudan to rebuilding lives in Kenya

CHH Kakuma EWH 21 Dec 15 low res