The teenage rebel soldiers watched as their comrades handed over their assault rifles and stripped off their oversized khaki uniforms with the red, black and green South Sudan flag emblazoned on the right shoulder.
Almost 150 boys, aged between 11 and 17, were demobilized in Gumuruk, eastern South Sudan, on Tuesday, as part of a peace deal signed in May between the government and militia leader David Yau Yau’s South Sudan Democratic Army (SSDA) Cobra Faction in restive Jonglei State.
“I want to congratulate all of you on reaching peace,” United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) country representative Jonathan Veitch said at the demobilization ceremony.
“Your future will be much better if you take your uniforms off and you become children again.”
More than 2,000 boys are expected to be released in the next few weeks – the largest handover in the short history of the world’s youngest nation – and reunited with their families.
As the boys sat under a tree and recited their rebel militia’s military chant for the last time, fists punching the air, one of their former leaders cried.
“The song that you have sung, that is an adult struggle,” said John Towan, wiping tears from his face.
“You have been joining the army because most of our people have died… Uncles, brothers, fathers, mothers have all been killed.”
Towan, once a rebel leader, is now a peace and reconciliation adviser in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area, created by the government as part of its deal with Yau Yau, a former theology student who took up arms against the government in 2010 after failing to win a seat in parliament.
Many young men rallied behind his call for an end to the marginalization of their Murle ethnic group by the more numerous Dinka and Nuer.
“People used to tell us that Murle are not educated people, that we are thieves, that we are people who are suffering from diseases,” said Towan.
“We have to all go and study. If we get educated… nobody will say that we are an illiterate community.”
Several militias have been fighting the government since South Sudan won independence in 2011 after decades of war with Khartoum.
Yau Yau signed a ceasefire in 2011 and was made a general in the national army but defected again in 2012.
Nationwide conflict resumed in December 2013 after fighting erupted in the capital, Juba, between soldiers allied to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar.
More than 12,000 children have since been recruited into armed groups, UNICEF said.
In dusty Gumuruk village, the children were given soap and water in front of tented shelters where they will stay while their families are traced.
“I need school,” said James, 15, wearing a pink shirt. “I am not happy to be a soldier.” He joined the militia two years ago because “soldiers were killing our people” but now hopes to become a pastor.
Several of the demobilized children said they joined the rebels because it offered them protection at a time of fighting.
Feuds between the Murle and the Nuer, traditionally over cattle, stretch back decades, with guns replacing traditional spears.
At the demobilization ceremony, one speaker after another called for water and schools to be brought to the area.
“We don’t want these children to suffer,” said Brigadier General Daniel Abudhok Apiokuach, who is overseeing the rebels’ integration into the national army.
“They are the future of South Sudan.”
Half of the two million South Sudanese who have fled their homes since December 2013 are children, in a country with a population of 11 million.
The army committed itself in 2009 to ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and has released almost 1,000 children from its ranks since then, UNICEF said.
“It is a crime for children to be in the military,” said Veitch. “We are watching this very carefully, not only here but in the rest of the country because we know there is recruitment on all sides of the conflict that is going on.”
Government and rebel forces have killed over 660 children and abducted more than 300 since December 2013, as well as committing sex crimes and attacking scores of schools and medical clinics, according to reports received by UNICEF.
South Sudan is one of seven countries where UNICEF is campaigning to end the recruitment of children as soldiers.
“Today’s release of children is a step in the right direction, but we cannot forget that thousands more have been recruited by all parties to the conflict,” said Leila Zerrougui, the U.N.’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.
“I urge the Government of South Sudan and the opposition led by Riek Machar to honor their commitments. The release of children in their ranks is long overdue.”