As South Sudan's Civil War Worsens, Thousands of Children Are Being Forced to Join the Fight. Will Washington Help? as the Trump Administration Hashes out Its New Foreign Policy, Some Fear the Country's Child Soldiers Are Running out of Time

By Cass; Vinograd, Ra | Newsweek, March 31, 2017 | Go to article overview

As South Sudan's Civil War Worsens, Thousands of Children Are Being Forced to Join the Fight. Will Washington Help? as the Trump Administration Hashes out Its New Foreign Policy, Some Fear the Country's Child Soldiers Are Running out of Time


Cass, Vinograd, Ra, Newsweek


Byline: Cassandra Vinograd

It was just before dark, and Charles was pulling weeds with his father in South Sudan's Western Equatoria state when roughly a dozen armed rebels appeared, demanding he join their ranks. Charles was terrified. His father tried to intervene, but he was outnumbered. That night, Charles, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was separated from his father and forced to become a soldier. He was just 13 years old.

It's been three years since the beginning of South Sudan's civil war, and the consequences have been devastating. Rebels and government forces have conscripted more than 17,000 children to fight, according to UNICEF, in a conflict between supporters of President Salva Kiir and those of former Vice President Riek Machar. The war has already killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced more than 3 million people. Both sides have been accused of killings and mass rapes, but a recent U.N. report placed most of the blame on the government's side. The conflict has also been economically disastrous, creating inflation and now famine. In February, the U.N. said some 100,000 people are on the brink of starvation, while another million could be affected. Months earlier, Yasmin Sooka, the U.N.'s chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in the country warned that South Sudan was showing "all of the warning signals" of a Rwanda-like genocide.

As the situation worsens, Kiir has resisted help from foreign countries by blocking humanitarian assistance and raising the cost of permits for international aid workers. This comes at a time when the United States appears to be turning inward. In mid-March, the White House directed the State Department and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations to cut U.N. program budgets by almost half--cuts, according to Foreign Policy, that would disproportionately affect State Department funding to UNICEF and peacekeeping . Since 2014, the United States has given $2.1 billion in humanitarian aid to South Sudan. But as the Trump administration hashes out Washington's new foreign policy, some fear that boys like Charles are running out of time.

Six years ago, South Sudan won its independence after more than two decades of civil war between the largely Muslim north and Christian south . But in late 2013, fighting between supporters of Kiir, a Dinka, and Machar, a Nuer, spiraled into a civil war that's now being fought largely along ethnic lines.

After a 2015 peace agreement, Kiir restored Machar as vice president in a short-lived unity government; peace evaporated in July when clashes between Kiir's and Machar's supporters broke out in the capital. Then, late last year, a U.S.-led effort to impose an arms embargo failed. At his last press conference before leaving office, President Barack Obama, whose administration played a key role in championing South Sudan's independence, told journalists he felt " responsible for murder and slaughter that's taken place" in the country.

Obama's predecessors, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, also made the country--then still part of its northern neighbor--a priority, thanks to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the influence of Christian evangelical groups .

Since taking office in January, t he new administration has yet to outline its Africa policy, let alone its thoughts on South Sudan. But the Trump team has hinted in a direction that doesn't bode well for Juba. A four-page list of questions the president's transition team submitted to the State Department suggests the White House is skeptical of international aid. Later, during her confirmation hearing in January, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., suggested that the new administration would review funding for peacekeeping missions, calling the one in South Sudan "terrible." In March, the budget the White House sent to Congress proposed cutting State Department funding by 28 percent. …

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