There is a widespread issue of child soldiers in Burundi. It is not uncommon for armed militias in conflict zones to recruit children without proper training and send them to the front lines, often using them as mere cannon fodder.
Burundi, a small nation bordered by Rwanda to the north and Tanzania to the east, still bears the scars of a 12-year civil war that began in 1993 and ended in 2005. Even almost 20 years later, it is still one of the poorest nations on the planet, with thousands of children becoming soldiers during the conflict.
Child soldiers in Burundi were recruited by armed groups for various roles, not just as frontline fighters. They had no say in the matter, as the groups forced them to perform tasks ranging from cooking to guarding. Additionally, girls were often coerced into sexual acts and arranged marriages with older men.
The Burundian Civil War took the lives of more than 300,000 people and left more than one million more displaced. The conflict was a result of the long-term tensions and unrest between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic populations. Burundi’s first Hutu President got elected in 1993 and was later assassinated by the Tutsi army. This act of murder of a Hutu-born president caused the nation to plunge into a state of mass genocide.
Many families had their children forcibly taken; some children got kidnapped at school while those in refugee camps volunteered to join the militias, hoping to find a better life.
The growing poverty rates pushed some children into the military as they sought the financial means to send money back home to their loved ones. Many of these children later discovered that there would be no wages for them, with only 6% of child soldiers in Burundi receiving any form of payment for their service(s). Following their subjection to inhumane abuse and acts of atrocities, many of them live on to experience the pain for several years.
Due to the corrupt and secretive nature of recruiting children as soldiers, official figures are difficult to determine. There are no accurate estimates of how many child soldiers in Burundi lost their lives in action.
Demobilization and Reintegration
While it remains a fact that society’s most vulnerable citizens play roles in a war they do not understand, a number of poverty-reduction and reintegration programs are working toward bringing about positive change. These programs focus on demobilizing former child soldiers in Burundi and providing them with the support and rehabilitation necessary to get back into society.
In 2000, most active groups in the conflict signed the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in a partnership that set the foundations for ending the civil war. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa oversaw the agreement.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) created a framework in 2001 to develop a demobilization action plan, which the Burundi Government signed. The goal of the plan was to reintegrate a total of 5,500 child soldiers back into their communities through financial aid, mental health support and medical support.
Amnesty International emphasized that plans and programs must prioritize providing support to sexual violence survivors, with additional assistance to pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Throughout the war, Amnesty International documented acts of human rights violation to inform the global community. These reports exerted pressure on both the Burundi Government and armed militias to prioritize the well-being of civilians during future negotiations.
UNICEF’s project failed to include most child soldiers once they turned 18, underscoring the importance of efforts from other charities in preventing re-recruitment. World Vision (WV) prioritizes preventing recruitment through educational programs that aim to empower and protect young people. Providing financial support to families is also crucial in reducing the temptation of bribery from militant groups. WV continues to support reintegration by collaborating with small local organizations.
War Child’s Efforts
War Child collaborates with former child soldiers to establish “safe spaces” where they can meet and attend classes to further their education. Those aged 18 or older are offered employment opportunities and mentoring to supplement their vocational training.
Since its establishment in Burundi in 2011, War Child has witnessed the likelihood of further violence, as seen in 2016. The organization utilizes its platform to focus on prevention, leading the Economic Empowerment of Youth Toward Peacebuilding and Crisis Prevention project. The project examines why children feel compelled to join militias while identifying community actions that can provide protection.
Hope for Better Days
While child exploitation persists in Burundi, ongoing efforts from both local and international organizations to create a safer, more enabling environment for children in the country have resulted in some progress. The hope is for every child in Burundi to have the assurance of fundamental human rights and remain protected from the terror that comes in times of conflict.
– Yasmin Hailes