South Sudan: Former Child Soldier Strives to Make War-Weary South Sudanese Laugh

Juba — A South Sudanese former child soldier who now performs comedy says he wants to put smiles on the faces of South Sudanese who have been traumatized by years of conflict. He also wants to educate soldiers on how to associate with civilians.

South Sudanese soldiers harass civilians with the intention of extorting money from them, says Kuech Deng Atem, 26. He hopes to disarm soldiers with jokes.

Atem jokes about a common occurrence in South Sudan: getting stopped on the road: “We came with a car, and the guy stopped us, and he was like, ‘Jibu (give) logbook (car registration).’

“I gave him the logbook.

“‘Jibu ruksa’ (permit, or driver’s license).

“I gave him the permit. Then the guy knew there was nothing wrong with the car, and he looked at me and was like, ‘Brother, why didn’t you put on your seatbelt?’

“I started talking to him. He said, ‘No, you park there. I don’t want nonsense.’

“Not to waste time because I was rushing somewhere, I put my hands in the pocket and gave him 1,000 pounds. The guy looked at me and was like, ‘My brother, you should have told me your seat belt is wireless.'”

A soldier at 10

Atem, commonly known by the stage name Wokil Jeesh Commando, became a soldier when he was 10 years old. He and other children were trained in Aweil and Mapel and later joined the fighting in Heglig and Abyei in 2012. He says that in the beginning, child soldiers like him were mainly tasked with taking care of wounded soldiers and carrying ammunition.

In 2008, his mother followed him to Mapel and brought him to Juba, where he finally returned to school. That’s where he started performing comedy, telling classmates stories about life in the barracks.

“They would laugh, and teachers would come in sometimes and get me and be like, ‘Tell me the story.’ I would tell them, and they would laugh. Then one of the teachers told me, ‘You could do this in the assembly and make people laugh.’ So I started doing this in the assembly, and people would laugh every morning. That’s when I discovered that I can do stand-up comedy,” Atem told VOA.

In 2013, Atem joined South Sudan Film Limited, where, he said, he perfected his skills, and then started performing comedy skits on the state-run SSBC TV. Later, he joined “Kilukilu Ana,” a local stand-up comedy program, and performed every Thursday at the Nyakuron Cultural Center in Juba.

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