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Former Child Soldier Strives to Make War-weary South Sudanese Laugh

FILE - Comedian Kuech Deng Atem performs during the "Comedy for Peace" event, supported by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), held at the Nyakuron Cultural Centre, April 23, 2017, in Juba. (Photo courtesy UNMISS)

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 2006. 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.

Atem says he has won four awards for best comedian: South Sudan's MTN Music Awards in 2016, the South Sudan Talent Youth Award in 2017, the Juba Talent Award in 2018, and the South Sudan Super Stars Award in 2018.

The comedian, studying information technology in his final year at Juba's Starford University, says if his mother had not taken him out of the army, he might still be killing people, looking for the next war to fight in. He is urging the South Sudan government to ensure that children are no longer recruited into the army and are allowed to study so that later, should they choose to join the army, they will be educated soldiers who can make good decisions for the country's development.

Healing through comedy

Atem feels that comedy can help ease the stress that many South Sudanese feel after living through five and a half years of civil war. He hopes one day to become an international success, putting "smiles on people's faces" and helping them forget their past painful experiences.

"My main aim is to become international — not just in South Sudan but also in Africa generally — travel from one country to another, try to educate Africans and try to help in trauma healing through my jokes and solve other problems through jokes, Atem told VOA. "You know, comedy plays a great role in society in peace building, bringing people together."