Late one night in April 2015, 13-year-old Patricia* and her sister, who was 11, were kidnapped from their beds by rebel forces fighting the government in South Sudan.
The girls were taken from their home in a raid on their village by the South Sudan National Liberation Movement in Yambio county, not far from the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Although she spied on government troops during her captivity, Patricia’s main job was carrying food and cooking. She was also forced to have sex with soldiers.
“When we reached the military base, I was assigned to a certain soldier as his wife. He was older [about 40]. But I refused and I was beaten,” says Patricia, now 17, sitting under a mango tree at her parents’ home.
“I resisted for two weeks. But one night this man came and grabbed me. I tried to fight and wrestle with him. But he was strong and overpowered me. I tried making noise and alarm, but nobody came to my rescue.”
Her sister sat helplessly as Patricia was raped. After that, the rapes continued almost daily.
On 7 February 2018, her ordeal at the hands of the rebel soldiers came to an end. She was released in Yambio as part of the deal reached by authorities in Juba and the rebel group. When she went home, she was four months pregnant.
The number of children used in armed conflict worldwide has more than doubled since 2012, with a 159% rise and almost 30,000 children recruited, according to Child Soldiers International.
As a child soldier, Patricia was entitled to receive emotional, physical and practical support from UN and child protection agencies.
But almost 18 months on, she’s still struggling to come to terms with the trauma of what happened to her, and finding it hard to earn money to support herself and her one-year-old son.
“I keep having flashbacks. At times I feel so bad and frustrated. I isolate myself from people,” says Patricia. “It’s mum who tries to counsel and advise me to forget about the past and move on. But it’s difficult. I need medication to help me.”
Since fighting broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, more than 19,000 children are understood to have been “recruited” by armed forces and groups, according to a briefing published by the UN children’s fund, Unicef, in March.
Children can be used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers and spies. Girls are often subjected to sexual violence. Recruiting children under 15 constitutes a war crime, although despite an international focus on ending impunity, very few war crimes are investigated.
Since February last year, 360 girls and 610 boys have been released in Yambio through the National Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration Commission (DDR), in partnership with Unicef and the UN mission in South Sudan. More than 3,000 children have been released in other states.
When she was demobbed, Patricia, like other child combatants, received a reintegration package including clothes, bed sheets, shoes, three months of food rations and other basic items. She was assessed by staff at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and has been assigned a social worker. It is hoped that with the support of the social worker and her family, Patricia will be able to move on with her life.
“Patricia sometimes talks to her mother about her past, which is one of the best support circles for psychosocial support wellbeing. She is responsive and developing her relationship with her sister which is also a good sign,” says Vanessa Saraiva, World Vision senior adviser in South Sudan.
“Over time, these [counselling] sessions will enable Patricia to process what has happened, heal from those experiences and build a resilience to move on in normality,” says Saraiva.
“Community support is also crucial, especially in helping children reintegrate back into their own communities and their families,” she says.
At least 752 former child soldiers in Yambio have received psychosocial support and case management services through World Vision. In addition, 200 have graduated from vocational skills training, 80 have been given support to start small businesses, and 60 have been given the resources they need to work in agriculture through the charity, which is campaigning for more UK aid money to be spent on protecting children in crises.
However, Luciano Damian Canchelara, an MSF mental health activity manager, based in Yambio, says this is not enough. “Organisations are providing some services but in some cases this is not enough, and the children still struggle a lot.”
Jean Lieby, chief of child protection for Unicef in South Sudan, said fear and stigma sometimes mean girls and women miss out on getting the full support they need.
“Girls are given special attention, and offered counselling following the screening. It is, however, recognised as a problem, in certain areas, to identify girls leaving the armed forces and groups, because they do not want the stigma of being identified,” said Lieby.
“Girls, therefore, often return to the community by themselves and do not come forward to be identified for assistance.”
According to UN guidelines, demobbed girls should be offered vocational training “in all types of occupations, including those traditionally limited to men and boys”. Such support should be boosted with resources to help improve girls’ education.
Patricia says she doesn’t feel she has received adequate support to cope with her experiences and to deal with life back home with a baby.
“I feel frustrated. I find it hard to take care of myself and the baby. I have to do casual work to get money. I have to do farming to get money for food, treatment and buying baby clothes.
“I have no one to assist me. My parents are poor. They can’t support me and the baby adequately. I need help,” she says. “Before I was kidnapped I had friends. But when I returned from captivity nobody wanted to be close to me.”
Despite returning home last year, Patricia had to wait until July before she could enrol on a six-month sewing course that could help her earn a living as a tailor. After she finishes the training, she will be given a start-up kit so she can start her own business.
“I can’t manage to go back to school. But I want to support my sister with her education. If she studies, she will help our parents who didn’t go to school,” she says.
* Names have been changed to protect identities