By Parach Mach
JUBA, South Sudan – Not all former child soldiers lead a life of doom and gloom. James Okony is different.
In 2013, when he was only 15, an armed militia abducted him from his school in Gumuruk County in northeastern South Sudan, to fight a war he knew little about.
“We were turned into killers,” said Okony, now 19 years old.
Since the last two years after returning home, he battled poverty and stigmatization, and set up a successful business in capital Juba, which he says currently fetches him $36,000 a year.
Okony along with many other young boys was forced to fight for Cobra Faction, a local militia formerly led by the incumbent South Sudanese deputy defense minister Gen. David Yau Yau.
“We were taken by force and given guns to kill anyone,” Okony said.
He was held in captivity for nearly three years in the bushes of Gumuruk, leading a life in which bullets fetch you food.
Building a new life
In 2015, after being demobilized along with 3,000 minors, he attended a rehabilitation program organized by the UNICEF and a local non-profit Grassroots for Empowerment and Development Organization.
There, Okony was equipped with basic skills in entrepreneurship and resource management, which he says, restored his confidence and fueled his determination to rebuild his life.
“I wanted to build a new life,” he said.
Last year, Okony said he sold two goats given to him during the program for 11,600 South Sudanese pounds ($75), and invested the money into a charcoal business he started up in Mangeri, a small military base, about 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) from Juba.
Soon he had some big hotels buying from him. He even managed to employ a staff of four.
After his first shop reaped profits, her rented three more shops in Juba – one of which was located in Konya Konya area, a busy market in the capital.
“With 650,000 South Sudanese pounds (nearly $5,000) a month, I pay ten local clients and my staff, and still save 355,000 South Sudanese pounds, approximately $3000,” he said.
Hopes and dreams
Okony hopes to expand his business into a multi-million pound enterprise.
In the long-run he wants to open a vocational training center to help former child soldiers.
In a country where the unemployment rate stands at 40 percent according to the National Bureau of Statistics and millions of graduates of higher institutions have no jobs, Okony is one of the few who havemade use of a unique opportunity to create a livelihood for himself and others.
Experts blame the government for giving little or no attention to skill acquisition, which is a vital component of rehabilitation and reformation.
Lewis Anei Kueidit, an advisor at South Sudan’s Ministry of Labor, Child and Social Welfare said, “Without socio-economic reintegration, ex-child soldiers may be recruited again, something the government has deliberately failed to do.”
“Many former child soldiers risk going back to active military if their needs are not met. They feel isolated and fail to integrate into their communities,” Anei told Anadolu Agency on Wednesday.
South Sudan got independence in 2011 after more than five decades of brutal civil war with Sudan.
In December 2013, it slid into turmoil once again, and the conflict killed tens of thousands and forced 16,000 children to work as soldiers for the warring militias.
UNICEF supports government efforts to demobilize child soldiers. From July 2014 to May 2015 approximately 6,000 ex-combatants have been demobilized, including 3,000 from the Cobra Faction, which has now made peace with the government.