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At one point, Burundian authorities described the work of the Guardians of the Peace as "civilian military work," travail civile militaire, an appropriate description of its ambiguous status. In June 2001, a military officer in charge of the self-defense program stressed the autonomous character of various programs in different parts of the country, saying that each local military commander decided how paramilitary groups would work in the area under his authority.18 Yet it is clear that all these programs were sanctioned at the national level and that local commanders, as well as the paramilitaries whom they commanded, were acting as agents for the state.


Burundi requires military service from secondary school graduates who are continuing on to higher education, thus exercising the right to conscription generally recognized by international law. But the young men recruited for service in the Guardians of the Peace did not fall into the category covered by law nor were these paramilitary units considered part of the Burundian armed forces. In most cases, local administrative authorities, acting at the behest of military commanders, simply designated those who were to serve.19 Some joined willingly to protect their homes, to seek revenge for previous rebel attacks, or because they hoped to use their position for personal gain. But a substantial number, perhaps the majority, agreed to serve only because they felt compelled to do so. One unwilling recruit said,

When the guardians started, I refused at first to have anything to do with them, but those who refuse are considered to be supporters of the rebellion. So I agreed to do this rather than face the consequences.20

"I felt forced to join the guardians," said another recruit, "because refusing would make me look like an accomplice of the rebels."21 Others joined because they feared such punishment as fines or imprisonment if they refused.

As rebel activity increased beginning in 1997, authorities forced hundreds of thousands of rural residents to move into regroupment camps. The concentration of people in these sites made recruitment for the Guardians of the Peace easier. As one witness described it:

The governor ordered that young men who are not in school should come and join the Guardians of the Peace. He made a speech about this in the site and then the zone chiefs carried out the local organization. They distributed papers to write down the names of recruits. They said that those who are against this program will be punished.22

According to this witness, the youngest recruits were ten-year-old children while the oldest were married men who had three or fewer children. Administrative authorities took care to ensure that all possible recruits were included, although on occasion they excused those who had enough means or personal influence to arrange an exemption.23

The vast majority of participants were Hutu. In Gatete, one of the six zones of Rumonge commune, for example, only one of 540 guardians of the peace was reported to be Tutsi.24 In Makamba province, where Tutsi and Hutu live together in displaced persons camps, a somewhat larger number of Tutsi serve in the guardians.25

Authorities particularly sought to recruit those who had once been rebels both because they already had military experience and because they could provide valuable information about rebel movements. According to participants, the number of former rebels now serving among guardians of the peace varies from as low as 10 percent in some areas to more than 75 percent in others.26 A former FDD combatant said that he was recruited to serve in the guardians after having spent seven months as a prisoner doing labor at a military camp in Rutana. By agreeing he was able to return to his family and home commune.27 One government official admitted that he knew of military officers who had forced former rebels to join the guardians against their will and had tortured those who refused to provide information about the rebellion, some of them to the point of death.28

Recruitment and Use of Children as Guardians of the Peace

Burundi is a party to Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions which prohibits the recruitment of children under the age of fifteen for military service and requires that all feasible measures be taken to ensure that those under fifteen not take part directly in hostilities. Burundi has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides similar prohibitions.29 Yet military and civilian authorities have recruited and trained many children under the age of fifteen as Guardians of the Peace. One knowledgeable observer estimated that between 750 and 900 children aged seven to twelve years of age were recruited and trained in one year in Bururi. Human Rights Watch researchers were able to obtain the name and other identifying information about the youngest of these children, who was widely known for having begun his military service when he was seven years old. These youngsters suffered greatly through the rigors of military training. One witness recounted that the younger ones sometimes cried, especially when they were beaten by soldiers for failing to perform adequately. Recent recruitment efforts apparently have spared very young children, but recruitment of those fourteen and older continues.30

Parents were often reluctant to allow their sons to join the paramilitary force, but many feared punishment if they refused. The father of one sixteen-year-old said he had agreed to send his son to the guardians to avoid a fine or imprisonment. The child, who had just finished sixth grade in primary school, received firearms training for two days at the soccer field next to his school. A month later he was killed in combat.31 Many other children, certainly hundreds of them, died in combat between 1997 and 2001.


Some of the earliest recruits in Bururi province were subjected to an intense two weeks of training at the Bururi military camp where instructors were officers or soldiers of the Burundian army. Major Ntungumburane reportedly was in charge of the training along with Major Kibati, who was the camp commander. The colonel in charge of the fifth military region was said to have visited at least one of the training sessions. Recruits were taught military tactics and practices, civics, and the laws of war. They learned how to shoot and became familiar with more than a dozen firearms, learning to assemble and disassemble a number of them blindfolded. They were subjected to harsh conditions, sleeping on the ground with no bedding and eating only one scant meal a day. Recruits participated in strenuous physical exercise for several hours a day and were beaten by soldiers wielding sticks, if they failed to perform or collapsed. In one training program, three young recruits-one aged about twelve, one aged about fifteen, and one aged about seventeen-died from the effects of beatings and exhaustion.

Other recruits received a far more summary form of training. One participant in Rumonge, for example, says he was trained for only three half days at the soccer field next to the local zone office. His group learned only how to load and fire Kalashnikovs, nothing else.32 One participant who joined the Guardians of the Peace in the early months expressed his concerns about the whole program as well as about the limited training:

Because many of us are poor, armed, desperate, there is a real risk that we will fall prey to politics. Some may be tempted with money to do terrible things as in the past in Burundi. This is really a problem because many of us have little or no education and risk being easily manipulated. We had no ideological training and learned nothing about the laws of war. We were just shown how to use a gun and put to work.33

18 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, June 14, 2001.

19 Human Rights Watch interviews, Mutambu, June 16, 2000; Bujumbura, August 28, October 4 and 17, and December 11, 2000.

20 Human Rights Watch interview, Bururi, August 18, 2000.

21 Human Rights Watch interview, Bururi, August 18, 2000.

22 Human Rights Watch interview, June, 2001.

23 Human Rights Watch interview, Bururi, August 18, 2000.

24 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, June 10 and October 4, 2000 and Bururi, August 18, 2000.

25 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, September 13, 2001.

26 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bururi, August 18, 2000, and Bujumbura, August 28 and October 17, 2000; and June and July, 2001.

27 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, September 13, 2001.

28 Human Rights Watch, "Emptying the Hills, " A Human Rights Watch Short Report, Vol. 12, No. 4 (A), July 2000, p. 15.

29 Article 4 (3) (c-d), Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, which applies to all forces in a non international armed conflict; Article 38 (2), The Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN General Assembly resolution 44/25 of November 20, 1989, 44 U.N. GAOR SUPP. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. DOC. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force September 2, 1990.

30 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bururi, August 2000; Bujumbura, October 18, 2000; July, 2001.

31 Human Rights Watch interview, Bururi, August, 2000.

32 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura August 28 and Bururi, August 18, 2000.

33 Human Rights Watch interview, Bururi, August 18, 2000.

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