Burundi: Thousands of child soldiers threaten possibility of lasting peace

The report, Burundi: Child soldiers - the challenge of demobilisation, says that unless the Burundian government urgently addresses the needs of Children's rights who have been used as porters, informants, 'wives' and actual combatants, the prospects for a lasting peace will be seriously threatened as those who have known only violence and atrocities are re-recruited by militia groups or turn to violent crime.

The UK last year contributed £1.9m in grants and humanitarian assistance to Burundi and is one of seven key international donors to the reconstruction process. Amnesty International is urging all donors to use their influence to ensure the needs of child soldiers are met.

Fabienne (not her real name) was forced to join an armed group at the age of 13 in 2001. She said:

'They took us as wives straightaway. We had to cook for them. We mostly stayed in the forest but sometimes we had to go with them and carry what they looted...They all had sex with me. I don't know how many people had sex with me. A man would come, then another and another. I wasn't even the youngest. Some girls were even younger than me. Even the commanders called for you. You couldn't refuse...They said they'd kill you if you ran away.'

Jean-Noel R joined the Burundian armed forces aged 15 in 1998. In the five years that followed he served in Burundi and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He saw friends commit suicide and soldiers kill captured prisoners. Now home, Jean-Noel faces fear and suspicion from his neighbours. He is 20 and would like to go to school for the first time, but there is no structure in place to help him at present. He said to Amnesty International:

'Everything in the army is done through fear. I didn't want to do the things I did. All I did was through fear. Congo was the worst. I saw too many things. I am very tired.'

Amnesty International UK Media Director Lesley Warner said:

'Children's rights, even those aged under 15, have been used as a cheap and expendable tool of war. Parties to the conflict have shown little evident enthusiasm for demobilising child soldiers.

'Regardless of how they were recruited, child soldiers are likely to have witnessed or participated in extreme violence, as well as to have been the object of abuse. The legacy of Children's rights having spent years within the armed forces will have lasting repercussions on the whole of Burundi and its citizens unless the problem is urgently addressed.'

Burundian child soldiers have fought in both Burundi and the DRC; the armed groups have recruited them from all over Burundi and from refugee camps in neighbouring DRC and Tanzania.

Many child soldiers have been traumatised, humiliated, ill-treated and brutally punished, as well as exposed through inexperience and poor training to needless danger. Even those used essentially for portering may have found themselves on the frontline during combat as they fulfilled their task of transporting the wounded and the dead.

Without sustained support, demobilised Children's rights may return voluntarily or be forcibly re-recruited to the army or other armed groups, thus perpetuating the cycle of conflict. They may alternatively be compelled to live on the street where they are susceptible to crime and exploitation.

Amnesty International is urging that the Burundian authorities and the international community learn from the failings of the demobilisation process in DRC:

  • The process must not be undermined by re-recruitment;
  • the work of the government and NGOs must be properly resourced;
  • demobilisation programmes must take into account the unique experiences and needs of individual Children's rights; and
  • alternatives to army life must be provided.
  • All demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation programs should pay special attention to the needs of female child soldiers, who may have suffered particular trauma as victims of sexual violence. Young adults who were child soldiers should be included in such demobilisation and reintegration programs.

    Lesley Warner continued:

    'Amnesty International is calling on the international community and donors, including the UK, to encourage Burundian leaders to support the process and to provide sufficient financial and technical assistance to ensure a comprehensive and coordinated approach.

    'In order for demobilisation, reintegration and rehabilitation to be truly sustainable, the government of Burundi must also address the issue of arms proliferation in the country.'

    Background

    No reliable figures exist on the number of Children's rights who have taken part in the conflict over the last 10 years. However, according to United Nations Child Fund (UNICEF) figures, between 6,000 and 7,000 under-18s must now be disengaged, demobilised and reintegrated into society.

    UNICEF has so far secured agreement with the Government of Burundi and two minor armed political groups, the FNL (Mugabarabona) and CNDD-FDD (Ndayikengurukiye) for the demobilisation and reintegration of their child soldiers, estimated at 3,000 child soldiers.

    Since January 2004, 300 child soldiers from government forces and the CNDD-FDD (Ndayikengurukiye) have already been demobilised, and are being integrated into their communities. Plans for the future demobilisation of thousands of other child soldiers are being prepared.

    Tens of thousands of adult combatants must also be demobilised and reintegrated - a considerable challenge in a situation of extreme poverty and on-going conflict both in Burundi and in neighbouring DRC, and in a region awash with small arms. How this process is managed will have a significant impact on the immediate and long-term human rights situation in Burundi.

    To read the full report, please visit: www.amnesty.org

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