— Hundreds of South Sudanese children marched through the streets of Juba on Monday, carrying hand-painted posters and placards calling on grown-ups in the country to stop six months of fighting so that they can lead normal lives again.
The march was part of South Sudan's way of marking the Day of the African Child, an annual event that has been celebrated every June 16 since 1991, when it was first organized by the Organization of African Unity - now the African Union (AU).
After marching alongside a police band, the children took part in acting workshops and read poetry describing what they have suffered during South Sudan's conflict.
“Imagine. We were preparing for Christmas but received war.
We were expecting to celebrate Easter but our streets
Were filled with noises of battle and rumours of war.
Streams of children from other states filled Juba
With sad stories; with tears falling down.
The fear in their eyes could tell what they should not say
With their words. They saw killings and rape during the war.”
Children and the elderly were among the thousands killed in the fighting in South Sudan, some of them massacred in places of worship and hospitals.
Child rights activists say children in South Sudan have been severely traumatized by what they have witnessed during the fighting. The children at the event on Monday asked the adults present to treat every child as if they were their own.
“The blood of another child is like the blood of your own child," their poem said. "The body of another child is like the body of your own child."
Right to education
The theme of this year’s Day of the African Child was the right to education, which is guaranteed under the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
A poster carried by South Sudanese children in Juba on Monday, June 16, 2014, the Day of the African Child, asks for the right to go to school.
Save the Children’s Caitlin Brady said at the gathering that over a quarter of South Sudan’s schools are closed because of ongoing fighting in parts of the country.
We, as children, we want to live in a peaceful South Sudan. We want to go to school. We will build South Sudan to a new nation...
Brady said 95 schools are currently occupied by people who have been displaced by the fighting, or by government and anti-government forces.
“It is a major concern because those schools are unable to teach and children are unable to go to school," she said.
Save the children has built more than 30 temporary schools to allow internally displaced children to study, but those dozens of schools are not enough, Brady said.
South Sudan Education Minister John Gai Yoah said the government is aware of the plight of South Sudan’s children and his ministry is working to ensure that all of the country's children are able to go to school.
“We feel that education as the main source of development is the key for doing some challenges that children are dealing with,” he said.
South Sudanese children carry a hand-painted poster calling for peace and unity during a march in Juba on Monday, June 16, 2014, to mark the Day of the African Child.
Gai said his ministry is working with the army and the opposition to ensure armed man vacate any schools they have occupied so that children can use them for their intended purpose -- studying.
The children, meanwhile, insisted that all they need is for peace to be restored in South Sudan. Then, they said in their poem, they will be able to go back to school and learn how to play their part in building a nation of peace and prosperity for all.
"We, as children, we want to live
In a peaceful South Sudan.
We want to go to school.
We will build South Sudan
To a new nation..."