More than 300 child soldiers released in South Sudan
The 'laying down of the guns' ceremony on Wednesday for 224 boys and 87 girls was the first in a process that the United Nations expects in the coming weeks to see at least 700 child soldiers free.
More than 19,000 children are thought to have been recruited by all sides.
David Shearer, the head of the UN mission in South Sudan said this is just the "beginning of the journey." Almost 2,000 child soldiers have been released so far by the UN, with more than 10 per cent of them under the age of 13.
One 17-year-old boy who was abducted and forced to fight attended the ceremony on Wednesday with his arms clasped around his stomach and staring at the ground. Speaking to AP, the boy, who identified himself only as Christopher, said in a voice barely audible, "they told me to kill my mother."
After being seized from his home by opposition soldiers when he was 10 during localised fighting, his mother approached the commanders pleading them to set him free.
"When she came they told me to shoot her or I'd be killed instead," the boy said. "I had no option, I just asked God to forgive me." But he had never shot a gun, and when he pulled the trigger it jammed. His mother escaped.
Now freed, Christopher said his family has forgiven him.
Aid workers fear that renewed violence could force children back into armed groups. Anne Hadijixros, a child protection officer with UNICEF said: "If peace is not sustained and people are forced to the bush, we will lose these children."
Human rights groups say child recruitment continues, even as South Sudan's government says it is committed to ending the practice.
"The continued recruitment and use of children by the military and opposing armed groups points to the utter impunity that reigns in South Sudan, and the terrible cost of this war on children," Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a new report this week.
Speaking at Wednesday's ceremony, South Sudan's First Vice President Taban Deng Gai called the release of child soldiers a sign of peace.
He also warned other countries, particularly the United States, against criticism from those in "glass houses".