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VIII. Child Soldiers

Both boys and girls took part in the FNL attack on Gatoke in Bujumbura city on July 12.206 Local residents heard their voices, singing religious songs as the bands of combatants passed through the streets. FNL combatants frequently sing religious songs during attacks to assure themselves of divine protection. The next day residents found the bodies of between ten and twenty children, aged about ten to fourteen years old, lying among the dead on the ground.207 The number of children killed was unusually high, but it is not unusual for children to participate with adults in FNL military operations.

In the days after the attack, Burundian military and civilian authorities criticized the FNL use of child soldiers. But the Burundian army, like that also of the FDD, have also been guilty of using child soldiers.

The Burundian government, the FNL, and the FDD are all mentioned in a report of the Secretary General to the Security Council of November 2002 as forces and armed groups that recruit or use children in violation of their international obligations.208

Burundi signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict on November 13, 2001, but has yet to ratify it.209 Parties to the protocol agree to take all possible measures to prevent children under eighteen years of age from taking part in combat. In early 1999, the Burundian government promised Olara Otunnu, the special representative of the secretary-general of the U.N. for children and armed conflict, to stop recruiting children younger than eighteen years of age, but it has never implemented that promise through appropriate legislation. Thus sixteen years old remains officially the youngest age at which a child may be recruited for military service.210 The Burundian army has recognized that hundreds of children, called doriya, are used for various services, including to gather information. Some, including children twelve years old, serve as porters and guides.211

In many parts of Burundi and particularly in Bururi, Cibitoke, and Kayanza, boys and young men, many younger than the age of eighteen, were recruited for the government-run paramilitary force called the Guardians of the Peace. They were armed and received no salary; many of them lived by looting the population they were supposed to protect.212

Because Guardians of the Peace were not considered part of the regular armed forcesand because plans for reorganization of the army were not yet clear, many Guardians of the Peace have no idea what the future might hold for them.Some went to join the FNL or the FDD, as did some young people from Rumonge commune. Others joined the army, sometimes at the urging of administrative officials. In at least one case, the local administrator offered Guardians of the Peace sheets of roofing material as an incentive for joining the regular forces. Roofing materials are an important resource in Burundi where houses are destroyed so regularly. According to one account of a recent incident, some Guardians of the Peace were forced into military trucks and taken away to participate in military operations.213

All the rebel forces have used extensive propaganda to try to enlist children from schools and sometimes they have recruited them by force. Even after the December 2002 ceasefire, the FDD tried to swell its ranks as the cantonment and distribution of food to its forces was being discussed.214 In mid-July in the Muyanga province the police discovered FDD instructors teaching a group of young women and men how to shoot and throw grenades at a training site on the border with Tanzania.215 The establishment of the first cantonment site at Muyange spurred both Ndayikengurukiye and Mugabarabona’s FNL to greater recruitment efforts, sometimes by promises of money, sometimes by various deceptions.216

Not only did cantonment encourage recruitment of more young people to become child soldiers, the process made no specific provision for dealing with current or former child soldiers. In mid-July there were twelve children, one only twelve years old, at the Muyange site, but there was apparently no program set up to deal with them.217

Some children once part of a rebel force fled the military life and now see no place to go. One such child, an orphan, left home in 1998 at the age of twelve, encouraged by a neighbor to trade his unhappy life with poor relatives for the promise of clothes, money, and a better way of life in fighting with the FDD. He was taken with a group of twenty children, some younger than himself, for a night-long march to a training camp at a place called Muhanda. There their hair was cut and their clothes and shoes were taken from them and they were given tattered clothes, better suited, they were told, to the life of a soldier in the bush. Integrated into the ranks of Ndayikengurukiye’s FDD along with other children, including some girls, this young witness was put through rigorous physical training. The children were beaten regularly and made to run long distances over the hills. They ate only once a day and slept outside at night with no covers. The child soldier said, “Some children died because it was very hard.” He also received ideological training and was taught that they “were fighting for democracy.”

After three months of training, the child had become what he called a “real front-line combatant.” He fought in various parts of Burundi, including at Rukambasi, Makamba, Nyanza lac, Kabonga, Mutungu, and Vuzigo. While in combat zones, he fought together with both adults and other children. They were given pills to take to reduce their hunger and when they needed food, they got it from the local population or simply took it from the fields.

The child soldier was then sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo in a group of 250 combatants, including children who were, according to him, “just too little.” Deployed “to help Kabila’s army,” he fought in the area around Uvira, an important town in South Kivu province. He tried to flee once because, he said, “I felt very tired and because they had lied, saying that when we got to power, we would have everything.” He was captured by Mai-Mai, a Congolese armed group, who forced him to join them. Finally he was able to flee and returned to Burundi after three years in the DRC.

Sixteen years old and with no future plans, he knew nothing of the cantonment program for rebel combatants for which he might not have been eligible in any case since he was no longer an active part of the force. He said despairingly, “I left the FDD because we had nothing, but now I still have nothing.” Recognizing that if he returned to the FDD ranks he would probably be punished, he added, “I could even decide to go back to them. My heart isn’t in it, but I could try it anyway.”218

Another sixteen-year old who served with the FDD in the DRC said that about half the combatants in his unit were children. He said,

They told us that children were the best fighters. For example, if there was an attack, they would send us to stop the enemy advance. We were not afraid because we were all together and because they gave us special forms of protection. They weren’t for everyone—diviners gave them only to those who were going to battle.219

This child, who also believed himself ‘a good soldier now,” had no idea what he and other FDD soldiers were supposed to be fighting for. He knew only that life was difficult, that the food was bad, that he was dressed in uniforms that were torn or in rags, that he was beaten, and that he slept outside. He said he was angry at ‘the important leaders who are responsible for everything ; it is their war. I have friends my age who are dead.”220

At the initiative of the Minister of Human Rights, the Burundian government in 2002 created the National Bureau for Demobilization and Reintegration of Child Soldiers to assist child combatants from the government armed forces, from the Guardians of the Peace, and from Ndayikengurukiye’s FDD and Mugabarabona’s FNL, the two rebel groups that had signed ceasefires with the government at the time the office was established. The National Bureau, charged also with helping prevent future recruitment of children for military service, has representatives at all major military camps in the country. Representatives from Ndayikengurukiye’s FDD and Mugabarabona’s FNL are based in its Bujumbura headquarters.

Although the two smaller rebel movements had joined the government and were supposedly participating in the work of the National Bureau, their leaders refused for months to allow twenty-seven children of their movements cantonned at the Muyange siteto return to their homes and civilian life. In mid-November Ndayikengurukiye finally gave permission for the children to leave the site, but Mugabarabona had not yet agreed to do so, despite pressure from the National Bureau and from UNICEF.221

206 In keeping with the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, Human Rights Watch defines anyone under age 18 as a child.

207 Human Rights Watch interviews by telephone to Bujumbura, July 14 and 16, 2003; Iteka, “Des enfants soldats utilisés par la rebellion du Palipehutu-FNL,” July 14, 2003.

208 The report of the secretary-general in November 2002 was the follow-up to Security Council resolution 1379 of 2001 on children in armed conflicts. It lists twenty-three parties to conflict that recruit or use children in armed conflicts in violation of their international obligations.

209 As a signatory to the Optional Protocol, Burundi has an obligation not to take actions that defeat the treaty’s object and purpose (see Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, article 18).

210 International Coalition against the Use of Child Soldiers, Global Report on Child Soldiers, 2001.

211 Government of Burundi, Ministry of Human Rights, “Enfant soldats, un défi à relever pour le Burundi,” September 2001; Human Rights Watch, Emptying the Hills, Regroupment in Burundi, A Human Rights Watch Short Report, July 2000.

212 Human Rights Watch, To Protect the People: The Government-sponsored “self-defense” program in Burundi, A Human Rights Watch Short Report, December 2001.

213 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, June 12, 2003.

214 Human Rights Watch, “Burundi: Civilians Pay the Price of the Faltering Peace,” February 2003.

215 Iteka, “Recrutement des combatants du CNDD-FDD de Pierre Nkurunziza en province de Muyinga,” July 14, 2003.

216 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, June 9, 2003; and see above in cantonment section.

217 Human Rights Watch interview, Brussels, July 15, 2003.

218 Human Rights Watch interview, Bujumbura, June 13, 2003.

219 Human Rights Watch interview, Uvira, November 5, 2003.

220 Ibid.

221 Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, September, 2003.

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December 2003