By Modupe Gbadeyanka
Six months after the abduction of 159 children from the Gambella region of Ethiopia, 68 of them have remained unaccounted for.
This has forced two United Nations (UN) human rights experts to ask Ethiopian and South Sudanese authorities to urgently resume joint efforts to ensure the return of the remaining missing children.
On April 15, 2016, armed men from the Murle ethnic group reportedly attacked 13 Nuer villages in the Jikaw and Lare districts, Gambella region, Ethiopia.
The attack reportedly led to 208 people being killed and 159 children abducted.
Another 80 people were reportedly wounded and over 2,000 cattle stolen.
In the first two months after the attack, 91 children were rescued through the concerted efforts of Ethiopian and South Sudanese authorities.
However, since then, rescue operations have reportedly stopped.
The UN experts on the sale of children and on extrajudicial and summary executions expressed deep concern that as time goes by, “it will become increasingly difficult for these children to be found and released. Consequently, authorities in both countries are urged to redouble efforts to find and release the missing children as a matter of priority. These past six months have been absolutely intolerable for these children and for their families.”
The experts also warned that the 68 children, who are all under the age of 13, are at grave risk of being sold and exploited by their captors.
Twenty-six children from the Anywa ethnic minority who were abducted in previous raids earlier this year are also still unaccounted for.
“The abduction and ensuing sale and exploitation of children are abhorrent violations of the rights of the child,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio.
“What is even more worrying is that there appears to be a growing pattern of armed groups targeting civilians, and in particular children, with a complete disregard for international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and in complete impunity.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions, Agnes Callamard, stressed that “Ethiopian and South Sudanese authorities must take concrete steps to break the cycle of violence and prevent the recurrence of such heinous attacks.
“This requires working with the targeted communities to identify and implement all necessary prevention and precautionary measures to protect the children and their communities against future raids, killings and abductions.
“Prevention also demands thorough investigations of the killings, attacks and abductions committed last April with the view of determining responsibilities and holding perpetrators to account.”
The attacks left a reported total of 662 children without one or both parents. Seventeen such children are believed to be part of the 91 rescued children, and they have been placed in alternative care. These orphaned children are now extremely vulnerable and require special protection and assistance, the experts said, to ensure their rights to care, recovery and development.
“We salute the aid that has been provided so far to the 91 freed children, but urge the Ethiopian authorities to ensure that all precautions are taken to return these children to their parents, extended families and communities, with the best interest of the child as a guiding principle,” underlined the experts.
“The identification and registration of returned children is a complex process which requires due diligence and proper corroboration to ensure that no mistakes are committed in the reunifications, by guaranteeing among others the right to be heard of these children.”
“The future of children in the Gambella region will be forever compromised if they cannot grow in a peaceful and stable environment,” the experts warned, calling on the Government to ensure long-term strategies are in place for these communities to rebuild themselves. This entails the provision of financial support and assistance in kind as well as addressing the root causes of these recurring attacks.
The two UN human rights experts urged the international community to assist both governments in their search for the 68 children as well as in the delivery of all the necessary support to the victims of these murderous attacks.