Many children returned from armed groups are wracked by guilt. Religious ceremonies could be essential to alleviate these feelings.
Martha* is among thousands of girls who have been recruited by armed groups in South Sudan. Abducted while farming tomatoes with her mother, she was blindfolded by opposition forces and taken deep into the bush. She witnessed killings and assaults. She was beaten and forced to "marry" a soldier during more than 18 months with the group.
Even after such horrific experiences, Martha - who escaped in 2016 - says being forced to attack communities and loot properties were some of the worst moments. "At night we had to go and rob people's homes," she says. "One time, a house owner had a gun. He shot at me so I also shot at him. I don't know if he was killed. If you don't steal you don't eat."
According to estimates, around 19,000 children have been recruited in South Sudan's civil war. Many have now returned home. In 2018, 934 children - including 252 girls - were officially demobilised. Many of these have been enrolled in education and vocational programmes and received broad psychosocial support.
But many faith leaders and others are discussing how to go even further. Like with Martha, feelings of guilt are common. Addressing these anxieties will be vital to build community cohesion and prevent children returning to the bush.
In collaboration with UNICEF, Child Soldiers International interviewed dozens of girls formerly in armed groups during a month-long research trip in September. A recurring theme was the shame many felt about the violence they were forced to commit. For many, what haunted them the most was not the abuses they endured but the "bad things" they did to others.
"They forced us to do things we didn't like," says Martha. "The worst was looting and using the gun."
"I was only thinking about the blood"
In South Sudan, Christianity is often at the heart of community life. God is perceived as the only one who can truly forgive. Given the religion's fundamental role in society, church ceremonies can help remove the guilt children attach to themselves. More general psychosocial support - such as engaging children in recreational activities with peers - can be highly beneficial and help returnees regain a sense of normalcy. But often more is needed to remove feelings of self-blame.
Grace was 15 when she was recruited by rebel forces in the town of Yambio. "The worst thing was that they [soldiers] would beat people up and sometimes we even had to do it," she says.
She managed to escape after a year and found her way back to her grandmother's house. "I couldn't believe I was home at last," she recalls. She was wracked by feelings of shame, but believes religion helped begin the healing process.
"My grandmother took me to church so that everyone could pray for me, so that I could forget about the bush," she says. "It helped. Before I used to think about it but now it has started to disappear."
Martha recalls a similar experience after her own escape. "When I first came home, I was only thinking about the blood and the dead people," she says. "I didn't eat or drink and stayed indoors for days. Then my mother brought the people from the church to pray for me. It helped, but I was still so scared that they [armed group] would come back for me."
If children's negative feelings are not alleviated, they risk falling into a vicious cycle where they believe they are bad because they did bad things, leading them to withdraw from community life. According to several accounts, receiving forgiveness on a spiritual level can interrupt this spiral, helping children start over on a clean slate.
A greater role for the church?
Experiences from past conflicts show how impactful religious ceremonies can be. In the early-2000s following Liberia's civil war, for example, UNICEF said: "Religious rituals provide acceptance of the child, assuage the ill spirits associated with the child soldier's actions during the conflict, and reconcile the child with ancestral spirits."
In South Sudan, church leaders and locals seem similarly enthusiastic about such an approach. Many argue that churches should take an even more active part in reintegration.
"When girls come back, they are not comfortable in school. They isolate themselves from other students," says Pastor Emanuel Hezekiel. "The church can play a greater role in reintegrating them into their community so people do not point fingers and so that the children find a conducive environment."
A local leader in a village a short drive outside Yambio explained how the church had helped mediate relations between returning girls and their parents.
Some may perceive this focus on religion as pushing a certain agenda and at odds with standard international development practices. However, for child reintegration to be effective and sustainable, it must be tailored to local contexts and the daily reality of community life. For girls like Martha and Grace in South Sudan, it may be the only way to finally move forwards.
*Names changed to protect identities