«I only do things with value and meaning»

Article, 26.09.2013

Interview with former child soldier John Kon Kelei from South Sudan

More than 300,000 boys and girls under the age of 18 are involved in more than 14 armed conflicts worldwide. Thirty-year-old John Kon Kelei from South Sudan was once one of them. He was recruited at the age of 4. Kelei, a speaker at the Annual Development Cooperation Conference 2013, was a child soldier for five years in the rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), in Southern Sudan. In a written interview, he describes his experiences and explains what kind of assistance he would like to see for his native country.

Former child soldier John Kon Kelei from South Sudan is now a lawyer and works to promote education. @ Cuey Machar Secondary school Foundation

How was it that you became a child soldier and how did you manage to escape?
I was mobilised and conscripted with many other children, because it was a policy of the Sudan People Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA). It was hard to escape. There was always the risk that one could be put in front of a firing squad if one was caught.

Why did you later decide to study international and European law?
I wanted to study something that would be of great help to my people back home. My first choice was medicine, but I changed to law, because of the circumstances and I knew that I could help many people with my legal knowledge.

What influence does your past as a child soldier have on your life today?
I do not take things for granted and I believe in hard work so that change can occur. I only do things with value and meaning – no jokes. I think these are few ways that my past has affected me.

What is your relationship to your native country, the Republic of South Sudan?
I love my country very much and I am determined to do all I can in order to change things in my country.

In your opinion, what are the political and societal weaknesses of states in which armies and non-state groups recruit children to fight as soldiers?
The political willingness to address child recruitment is the greatest weakness.

According to UN figures, 252 boys between the ages of 14 and 17 were recruited as child soldiers in South Sudan in 2012, including 106 for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, in which you also served. What kind of support does South Sudan need to stop this from happening?
There is a great need for schools in order to engage teenagers. It is also of paramount importance to create job opportunities for youngsters.

You are actively involved in a number of charitable organisations and foundations and are also working on international standards for the reintegration and rehabilitation of former child soldiers. What standards are needed and why?
Many organizations are working in the same field, but don’t collaborate. This is a result of the lack of harmonized rules and standards.

When he was ten years old, Jon Kon Kelei managed to escape from the SPLA to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. There he went to school and worked on the side. With the money that he was able to save, at the age of 17 Jon Kon Kelei hired smugglers to take him to the Netherlands. Later he studied law there and today works as an attorney. In 2005 he founded the Cuey Machar Secondary School Foundation. The Foundation promotes secondary school education for boys and girls in South Sudan. In addition, he is spokesman for the Dutch organisation War Child, helping war-damaged children with psycho-social and educational programmes. He is also co-founder of the Network Young People Affected by War (NYPAW).

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