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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
AP/Press Association Images A Sudanese child soldier pictured in February 2001

I learned how to write in the dirt as a child soldier - now I'm an aid worker in the same conflict

The story of James Riak, an aid worker with GOAL in South Sudan, who was kidnapped from his family as a ten-year-old and trained as a child soldier.

JAMES RIAK IS a humanitarian hero who has come a long way from being a curious child trying to understand the use of a pen, to learning to write in the dirt as a child solider, to finally becoming an aid worker in one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.

James grew up in rural South Sudan, where, like most children, he helped with the agricultural work rather than going to school.

“I was eight years old. I remember there was a time when I was looking after cows, and then I found a pen on the road. I showed it to my father; “What is this? Do you know what this is?” He knew the use of a pen because he had gone to the city before, and he explained it to me.”


DSC01902 James Riak

James didn’t get the opportunity to find out how to use a pen or receive an education for some time. Two years later, he was kidnapped to train as a child soldier during the South Sudan civil war.

“We were taken because we were young. We weren’t supposed to join the military until we were 15.”

James began to learn to write by tracing his finger in the dirt while he was being trained to fight.

It wasn’t long before he escaped the military barracks to the safety of the Itang refugee camps in Ethiopia (now known as Kule). He had family there and they helped him make the long treacherous trip to the camps.

“The distance is about two hours, but when we went it took us one month walking because we were so young. We had to pass through a lot of water along the way; through Ulang, through Nassir, and continue across the Ethiopian border.”

The journey was worth it, as James was able to start school in Itang. He would spend seven years there.

A pen of my own

“That is when I finally got my own pen. If I had not been kidnapped as a child solider perhaps I would not have been able to go to school and learn the power of a pen and an education.”
“In the military, the officers were all educated and I knew one day I wanted to be educated too so that I could do something important with my life.”


Starting as a volunteer, James worked his way up through various aid organisations, eventually receiving a sponsored further education, including a graduate diploma with GOAL.

In his nine years with GOAL, James has continually gone above and beyond the call of duty to keep the programme running. During the Abyei crisis in 2011, international and relocatable staff were evacuated to the safety of a neighbouring state. James stayed behind to ensure that primary health care programmes continued to operate, providing life-saving health and nutrition care to the local population.

“Some people were thinking GOAL was closing one of our programmes during that time, but I made sure to let the community know that we were there, our (GOAL) purpose is to serve the people and that is the intention of the organisation and that is why I work with them.”

James currently coordinates GOAL’s activities in 24 health facilities in the north of the country, and continues to prove himself an invaluable contribution to the organisation and the humanitarian effort in South Sudan.


“I have seen the positive results from the health programmes I have worked on and it encourages me to continue with the tireless work we (GOAL) do in the communities in South Sudan.”

“My hope for the future is to continue working and develop within GOAL and to help to ease the burden of this ongoing humanitarian crisis.”

James Riak is GOAL’s Emergency Health Coordinator in South Sudan.

Interview by Willow Rook, GOAL South Sudan. Words by Ciara Jordan, Comms and Media officer GOAL.

Read: South Sudan army raped then burned girls alive

Read: Getting women on the ticket is great, but having them win seats is what matters most

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