In 1993, Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated in a coup d’état. Melchior Ndadaye, of the majority Hutu ethnic group, had sought during his three months in office to ease tensions between Hutu and the minority Tutsi, which had ruled Burundi for decades and continued to dominate the army. In response, Hutu paramilitary groups formed, and as quid pro quo attacks between Hutu and Tutsi escalated, Burundi spiraled into civil war.Among the many victims of the war were children. Indignant over Ndadaye’s death and the denial of political power the Hutu believed their due, extremist factions exhorted teenagers and even younger children to join their ranks, and for more than a decade, thousands of children lived in Burundi’s forests in deplorable conditions, raiding villages, camps, and military installations, both suffering and committing horrific violence. Many were girls kept as sexual slaves for older soldiers
David became involved in the Burundi Democratic Youth when he was 15 years old. After the coup in 1993, he became a Hutu child soldier, David tells of the hunger and abuse he faced as a child soldier as he was forced to walk barefoot for days with little food and water. David tells of his experience as a child soldier, his attempts to gain an education to become a political leader, and his retirement.
The assassination of President Ndadaye, I got into the Burundi Democratic Youth—the JEDEBU. I was around 15. My father had been active, during the electoral campaign of 1993, with the JEDEBU’s parent organization, the Democratic Front of Burundi. He was very excited for the first democratic elections, like most people were. “No more injustice!” he would say. “Our children can go to school without fear, like we had.” Ndadaye was with the Democratic Front, so Papa was happy when he won.
My father and some others began to cross the border into Zaire to buy weapons, mostly Kalashnikovs. They then looked for a teacher to come from Rwanda to train people in the use of arms.
From 1995 to 1997, the army carried out numerous arrests of people who attended these training sessions or were accused of participating in them, and many of the trainees went into exile. Many ended up in refugee camps in Tanzania, and recruitment centers were then established in these camps.
I was full of rage, with an intense anger inside of me wanting revenge for the innocent Hutu people killed over decades by this same Tutsi army. Those in charge of this recruitment circuit did not have a hard time convincing me to become a “kadogo”—a child soldier.
I would spend two weeks in the bush without eating cooked food. Sometimes, so as not to starve, I ate mud. Often we had bitter bananas. Our cheeks were swollen and hair yellowed by acute malnutrition and a diet without salt. Sometimes we could steal salt from households. Snakes, chimpanzees—anything that had flesh, we would gladly eat.
We would stand all night, even in the rain. Only chiefs slept. The leaders also took our shoes. We had to walk barefoot. When we killed soldiers, their uniforms were recovered by chiefs, who were also taking the best of the spoils that we recovered from households. Our clothes were full of lice, and this was true for everyone, from a simple fighter to the greatest leader. When we felt the bite, we tore our clothes and ate the louse in rage so as not to diminish our strength from loss of blood. This was very common.
The fighters kept encampments of girls who were available to the chiefs for sex. The girls had better quarters than all of us, and they would get food—they could not satisfy the wishes of the leaders without eating.
Sometimes if a chief was wounded in battle we had to carry them on our shoulders during the night. They would beat us with hoes to force us to maintain balance and keep him from suffering. We could walk for five days, from Kagera and Kirundo to Kibira and all the way to Kagunga, Tanzania. More than 400 kilometers on foot. We would do it mechanically, eyes closed. To avoid chafing, you walked with a bit of palm oil or Vaseline applied between the thighs.
The armed struggle was conducted in Burundi by child soldiers and those who had no formal education. Military training and receiving many blows hardened these children, which made us fearless and insensitive.
Within the FNL, many prayed. Religious faith was used to legitimize the political struggle. Some chiefs were very strict on the consumption of alcohol, and painful punishments were reserved for those who consumed. Combatants accused of having sexual relations were sent to death, while they themselves did so in secret.
While I was away, my sisters, Sarah and Eliane, were raped in their home by soldiers who happened to pass through and attacked their household. They saw the two young girls and shoved them onto our father’s bed to accompany their leaders while they were “resting.” My father lay on the bedroom floor. There were screams, as Sarah was yelling, “Papa!” Eliane remained stoic. It was a night of horror.
The days went by. The family tried to act as nothing ever happened, but my father could no longer look at his daughters face-to-face. Their mother could not find the proper way to talk to them. Every evening, when night came, the images of the men entering their home, asking his daughters to “rest” with them, came back violently to haunt him, and he started to be delirious in his sleep.
Sarah and Eliane could not bear it anymore either, this deep silence around them, these cross looks from their neighbors, this permanent horror to have been raped. So they decided to join their older brother in the bush, even if it meant to die.
In the rebellion, those who had been to school were reserved for the postwar period, for political positions. The uneducated would have to show ferocity and courage as fighters to get noticed. This is what prompted me to resume my studies. In 2000, when I saw how it operated—that those who had more schooling were best served in the rebellion—I decided to stop the armed struggle. I went to a school in Kigoma, Tanzania. It was considered a recruitment center and training center for future leaders of the rebellion and was soon closed. I immediately went to another school. It was learned that I had been in the rebellion, and I was imprisoned for a few months. When I was released, I fled to Congo. In 2002, I decided to return to Burundi and settled down in Kinama. There I took charge of the delivery of weapons to various military leaders. I did not want to return to the bush so I stayed in town as a mobilizer.
In 2006, I joined with others to oust [FNL commander Agathon] Rwasa, who was accused of embezzling funds from the movement. Unfortunately, the post that had been promised to me in return for my participation was never granted, and I decided to retire permanently from politics.
The veterans, many people remain in thievery, for lack of employability. Because we had the habit of eating meat without being breeders of cattle—we were stealing what we wanted to get. How else, when I have never learned to work? For my part, I have created income generating activities. In Bubanza, I have over 400 fish ponds, managed by former FNL combatants. I urged them to engage in beekeeping, and we are learning the culture of modern banana plantations.
I decided to start income-generating projects for youth, veterans or not. To make Burundi a beautiful country in which to live, that welcomes all. In the end, for the vast majority of those who lived in the bush, we gave ourselves for things for which we did not know the final price. The war benefited only the elites. Young people, who formed the strength of the rebellion, returned empty-handed.
And since the beginning of my civilian life, I found inner peace. I weighed no more than 50 kilograms then, but today I am over 70 kilograms. I sleep without nightmares.
My father, though, after all these years, in 2015 he finally went mad. At times, he would stare at the horizon and begin to cry. Or, when one tried to talk to him, he would simply lower his head, as if words no longer made any sense, as if he would be deaf for the rest of his life. He was most likely thinking about Sarah and Eliane. They died in the resistance in 1998. My three brothers also died.
This article was created in partnership with TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in support of the film Beasts of No Nation, produced in part by Participant Media and distributed by Netflix.
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