Childhood under assault
Part 4: Agnes, South Sudan
Girls and boys deserve to grow up free from abuse and exploitation. But in the world’s most dangerous places, childhood is frequently the first casualty. Here is Agnes' story, the fourth in our 10-part series.
Warning: descriptions of violence experienced by children.
“I hadn't done that sin before.”
Many girls in Canada have household jobs to do after school. They might fold laundry or wash dishes before settling down to do their homework.
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In South Sudan that night, perhaps 13-year-old Agnes* was preparing to wash dishes herself. She remembers her mother asking her to fetch some water. It was a routine request, but one that would twist the course of Agnes’ life.
She picked up her water jug and headed out. Maybe she hoped to meet some friends on her way to the water source. Perhaps she had a math question to run by them … or a boy she wanted to talk about.
But Agnes never met those friends. Four men appeared out of nowhere, grabbed her, and dragged her into the bush. They tied her hands and legs, so she couldn’t run or fight.
Agnes was now part of South Sudan’s brutal conflict. She wouldn’t return home with her jug.
Life as a child soldier
Even before her abduction, Agnes’ childhood had already been shaped by war. Millions of South Sudanese children endure chronic hunger in the chaos wrought by violent conflict. They’ve endured illness, gone without schooling, grown up in fear.
But now, life was even more brutal. Agnes was part of a militia which attacked passing vehicles, shooting and stealing. When the group captured families, it was worst of all.
Like so many children in South Sudan, Agnes was abducted at age 13 by armed rebels and forced to participate in that country’s brutal civil war. Photo: Mark Nonkes
When Agnes shared her story with us, a World Vision social worker was present to provide her with emotional support. The soldiers frequently ordered captives to kill their own spouses, she told us. They made parents kill their own children.
“One of the men refused to kill his own wife,” Agnes remembers.
“So, the soldiers talked to me. They ordered me to kill that man. I hadn’t done that sin before. But the soldiers said they would kill me. So, I pretended I felt okay about doing it.”
She knew what would happen if she didn’t: “They would beat me and urinate on my body.”
The fear of agony, humiliation and degradation was overwhelming. Agnes forced herself to kill the man. “And that night, I started praying,” she said.
Child soldiers often carry tremendous guilt for what they were forced to do. Photo: Mark Nonkes
Agnes didn’t say what she prayed for. But we do know she called the murder a sin. Children can carry immense guilt for the choices they made as soldiers — even when threatened with death.
Rejoining life outside
Finally, the conflict in Agnes’ region eased. After three years as a child soldier, Agnes was released, along with many others. World Vision was ready to receive the children. That’s when Agnes began the hard work of rejoining life outside the militia.
Helping restore children who’ve survived conflict zones is a long process.
The abuse the children have faced has often been cruelly varied — including extensive sexual violence for many girls. Agnes is receiving counselling and talking about her experiences. It’s a good first step, and a healing one.
“I want to go back to school,” Agnes says. Whenever possible, World Vision helps children do this, reintegrating them into their communities so they can resume their studies. There’s also the option of vocational training, apprenticeships and mentorships with local tradespeople.
A group of girls connect at the child transit centre where conflict-affected children and youth can receive counseling, education and mentorships as they resume their lives. Photo: Oscar Durand
Reclaiming their lives
It might be tough to hope for someone like Agnes, a child so used and broken by her captors. But we know from experience that with the right support child soldiers can reclaim the lives the soldiers ripped away.
And we believe Agnes can be one of them.
*Name changed to protect her identity.