A former child soldier attends a tailoring lesson at the Tindoka Vocation Training Centre in Yambio, South Sudan, Sept. 6, 2018. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), at least 106 former child soldiers have enrolled to pursue vocational training as part of their reintegration process. (Xinhua/Gale Julius)
JUBA, Sept. 10 (Xinhua) -- Elizabeth, 16, had hoped to study to become a doctor or a teacher, but her dreams were shattered in 2015 after she got abducted by a rebel group in Yambio, southwestern South Sudan, while on her way to school.
Just at 14, she was married to a rebel commander and also served as cook for the insurgents for nearly two years.
"Life was so bad in the bush. Girls were sometimes raped and others were given to the commanders as wives," Elizabeth said.
Andrew, another ex-child soldier, was 17 when he was captured by another rebel group from their family farm last year. For two months in the hands of rebels, Andrew said he saw several children die during combat or due to lack of food.
"Life was not good in the bush because we were seeing many bad things. I saw many being killed during fighting," Andrew said.
A former child soldier attends a masonry lesson at the Tindoka Vocation Training Centre in Yambio, South Sudan, Sept. 6, 2018. (Xinhua/Gale Julius)
"People were dying every day. People were dying due to lack of food. Sometimes you just see someone dying of hunger in front of you."
Elizabeth and Andrew were lucky to be part of 745 child soldiers who were freed from the ranks of armed groups in Yambio this year.
But the situation still remains dire for children in the war-torn East African nation as some 19,000 children are thought to be in the hands of armed groups, according to statistics from the UN children's agency, UNICEF.
Despite the interruption to their education and the ordeal they suffered at the hands of captors, Elizabeth and Andrew are hopeful of rebuilding their lives once again- through learning life skills at a vocational training program supported by UNICEF.
The two are part of more than 100 former child soldiers who have enrolled to pursue a career in tailoring, carpentry, masonry, metal work, electrical installations and auto mechanics, among others.
A former child soldier attends a carpentry lesson at the Tindoka Vocation Training Centre in Yambio, South Sudan, Sept. 6, 2018.(Xinhua/Gale Julius)
"I was hopeless when I came back, but I hope to complete my tailoring course so that I get something to do for myself and build a good family in future," Elizabeth told Xinhua in a recent interview at her school.
Andrew, now 18, is pursuing a six-month course in masonry and said he hopes to attain skills to enable him rebuild his life and get a job to support his mother.
"I hope my life is going to change with this training as now I can see that I'm becoming a grown up adult," Andrew said.
"I'm begging those who are supporting this project to go and bring back our friends. They are dying of hunger and they are being killed like nothing," he added.
Vedasto Nsanzugwanko, UNICEF's chief of Child Protection in South Sudan, said though they have secured the release of several children previously associated with armed groups, the use of child soldiers in the country's war remains a huge burden that must be addressed urgently.
"We need to work together. We need cooperation of the government; we need cooperation of the community and other stake holders to ensure that children get out of the ranks of armed groups," Nsanzugwanko said.
He said with the prospects of peace returning to South Sudan, warring parties need to commit to their pledge of protecting children's rights and stop using children as soldiers.
"I urge parties to conflict to stop recruitment of children. Leave children to be with their families. Release children to go to school. Children are the future of South Sudan," he added.
South Sudan descended into civil war in late 2013, and the conflict has created one of the fastest growing refugee crises in the world.
The UN estimates that about 4 million South Sudanese have been displaced internally and externally.
Virginia Gamba, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, on Friday said grave violations of children's rights continue unabated in South Sudan.
A former child soldier attends a carpentry lesson at the Tindoka Vocation Training Centre in Yambio, South Sudan, Sept. 6, 2018. (Xinhua/Gale Julius)
Speaking at the end of four-day mission to the country, the UN envoy called on all armed actors in the conflict to end the recruitment of children, release all children in the ranks and ensure efforts to stop further recruitment.
"My discussions with the authorities lead me to believe that the time is ripe to work with the government and revise the existing Action Plans so as to develop a comprehensive plan addressing all six grave violations endured by the children of South Sudan," Gamba said.
"In Yambio, I met children recently released and was moved by their stories, which unfortunately are not unique. It is crucial that each and every boy and girl released benefit from reintegration programs and the international community must take a strong step and support these children and their communities in a sustainable and comprehensive manner," she added.