The use of child soldiers has been widespread in South Sudan’s ongoing civil war.

More than 650 children have been recruited to fight in the conflict in 2016 and around 16,000 since fighting began in December 2013, according to a United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) report.

The conflict is a power struggle between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army / Movement (SPLA/M) loyal to the nation’s president, Salva Kiir, and the SPLM In Opposition (SPLM-IO) loyal to the former vice president, Riek Machar.

Edward Dima, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kajo Keji, South Sudan, and president of the Baptist Convention of South Sudan, told that both sides were involved in recruiting and using child soldiers.

“Of course, both the government and rebels … always deny the report,” he said, “but witnesses can confirm that, yes, both the government and rebel forces recruited child soldiers into the infantry.”

Several ceasefires have proven tenuous, amounting to short-lived pauses in the nearly three-year civil war. Renewed fighting in the capital city of Juba in mid-July diminished hopes for a lasting peace.

“Things are not good in most parts of the country; there is no peace at all,” Dima said. “We are under threat everywhere. The peace we hoped for the last few months is now gone. … A sense of hopelessness is being seen in the eyes of people.”

Machar fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo following the Juba conflict, and Taban Deng Gai has replaced him as South Sudan’s vice president.

It is estimated that more than 50,000 have died in the conflict, 1.6 million have been internally displaced, and more than 786,000 have become refugees.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi recently visited Uganda, where 90,000 South Sudanese refugees have fled since mid-July – bringing the total to more than 268,000.

“Peace has to come to South Sudan. The leaders of that young country have to behave responsibly and not continue to ignore the plight of their own people,” said Grandi. “Humanity is suffering. This has to stop.”

Dima said, “We are enduring hardship – no medication, no food, no security, and a person is not to speak out otherwise you will be killed the next day. … Thousands fled to Uganda and more yet on the way to Uganda through the bushes to cross over the country where death is eminent.”

Foreign aid workers seeking to help internally displaced persons have increasingly come under attack in the first half of 2016, according to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“Both local and international workers are being raped [at] gun point,” Dima reported. “There were other serious, unreported cases of the same manner being committed by the government forces.”

Despite these abuses, some Catholic aid workers have decided to stay.

“We are committed to the ordinary people who are suffering so much,” said Bill Firman, director of Solidarity with South Sudan. “My colleagues and I believe this is a good place for religious to be. … We know our continued presence encourages … provides some hope.”

Baptists and other Christian leaders have taken steps to curb these abuses by speaking directly with local military and government leaders.

“Baptist churches and other denominations visit the SPLA barracks to correct some of the practices they do, like looting and so forth,” Dima shared. “In Kajo Keji, we have developed an engagement to dialogue with them … and it is working very well.”

He added, “In some areas … there is an attempt to meet the governor who is the head of the security to address issues of disappearances, killing and rape cases.”

Editor’s note: Articles related to South Sudan can be found here. Pictures from South Sudan provided by Dima are available here. A 2015 video interview with Dima can be viewed here.

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