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Helping Traumatized Children Learn to Forget in South Sudan
Their memories are the stuff of nightmares: beatings, maimings, mental and sexual abuse, friends and family members killed before their eyes. Sitting in the shade of a tall tree in Yambio, South Sudan, social worker Josephine Bakhita speaks gently to one of her young clients, who is still recovering from the trauma he experienced after being abducted by an armed group and then forced to fight and loot for years.
"The reason why I chose to become a social worker is to help my country and to help the vulnerable children around [me] who are suffering," Bakhita says. "When they come back from the bush, they are so aggressive, so I talk to them to forget the past. I help them to cool down their mind, to see that they become good children."
Hear how social worker Josephine Bakhita helps children freed from armed groups rebuild their lives:
Since 2013, UNICEF has supported the release and reintegration of 3,785 children associated with armed forces and armed groups in South Sudan. Under the umbrella of the South Sudan Government’s National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, released children are received in interim care facilities set up by UNICEF and partners and given essentials such as clothing, food and health care.
UNICEF has found that those who are released — or are able to escape — need extensive counseling, care and support to recover from the horrors they've witnessed and to help them readjust to their communities. Through the program, each child is assigned a social worker like Bakhita for a three-year period.
I love to support them just like my own children.
Every child is assessed and given an individualized multi-sectoral plan. Bakhita works with her young clients to help them return to school and to receive vocational training. Family tracing helps them reunite with loved ones. Through it all, Bakhita is there, a steady, reliable presence in their formerly chaotic lives. "I love to support them just like my own children," she says.
The program is a lifeline in a country with only three psychiatrists, 23 psychologists and one psychiatric ward. Currently, 488 children formerly associated with armed groups are supported by the UNICEF reintegration program, despite a 73 percent funding gap last year. Increased funding is needed to scale up mental health care so that more children can begin the long process of healing. Their future, and the peaceful future of their young nation, depends on it.
Top photo: Christian (name changed) was in his early teens when he was kidnapped by an armed group in South Sudan. “They were many, there was nowhere to run, and they took me with them," he recalls. "My brother was also taken. They later killed him.” Freed two long, terrifying years later, he is recovering now with help from a UNICEF-supported rehabilitation program. His social worker, Josephine Bakhita, encouraged him to return to school and he is now training to become a plumber. "If I am to succeed as a plumber, I will need peace," he says. "You see, when there is peace, people build permanent buildings, buildings made out of bricks, and they need plumbing. When there is war, they make only huts and there will never be pipes in them and I won’t have work to do.” © UNICEF/UNI285724/Ryeng