The U.N. Children's Fund says almost 3,500 former child soldiers between the ages of 10 and 18 have been returned to their communities and families in southern Sudan. The children returned home during the past few days.
The young people served with the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The majority of the children were flown over a six-day period to airstrips in Bahr el Ghazal.
UNICEF spokeswoman, Lynn Geldof says hundreds of relatives and community leaders were on hand to greet the children. She says the relatives were excited and joyful at the sight of the children, many of whom have been missing for years. "Many of them are very, very young indeed and have spent the same amount of time in combat, in armed conflict or with forces as they have lived," she says. "Some of them were indeed recruited or joined up at the age of five and now are 10. So, for many of them it was also the anxious moment and for their families waiting at the other end, it was a similar story."
UNICEF's Executive Director, Carol Bellamy began negotiating the release of the child soldiers with leaders of the SPLA last October.
Ms. Geldof says the rebel group fulfilled its pledge to her and released more than 3,500 children in February. Since then, the children have been staying in transit camps where they underwent a complex process of rehabilitation.
Ms. Geldof says most of the children are traumatized by the brutal experiences they have endured. While in the transit camps, she says they received psychological counseling, were provided with education and vocational training.
Most important of all, she says the children were allowed to be children. "It is the first time that UNICEF and its partners have managed to actually pluck children from active warfare in the face of active warfare, as opposed to a sort of negotiated peace process with the child soldier demobilization process as part of that peace negotiation," she says. "So, it is an extraordinary act of leadership."
Ms. Geldof says the Sudan People's Liberation Army is holding about 4,000 to 5,000 fourchild soldiers. She says UNICEF hopes that these children also will be released in the coming months.