I Was a Child Soldier

‘We gave ourselves for things for which we did not know the final price.’

Shadrack Niyonkuru, far left, as a fighter with Burundi’s National Liberation Front when he was 13 or 14. (Photo: Courtesy Shadrack Niyonkuru)

By @RolandRugero

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.

Here are the stories of two of the child soldiers of Burundi, David Ninteretse and Shadrack Niyonkuru. Though they were interviewed separately and do not know each other, they shared similar stories.

David Ninteretse: After 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.

Not long after the coup it became clear there would be a war; Hutu killed 25,000 Tutsi in retaliation for the deaths of Ndadaye, the president and vice-president of Burundi’s parliament, and several members of Ndadaye’s cabinet. Tutsi massacres of Hutu ensued.

Ninteretse: 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.

Shadrack Niyonkuru: When the crisis broke out, my father was killed. I was only three or four; I just remember that I was told he died. Even though I did not understand exactly what it meant, I felt I would never see him again.

My mother could not meet all the needs of the four children after the death of my father, so the family decided to separate. My father’s parents took me in to reduce the load on my mother. I went to live in Kirekura, and I returned to school but in very difficult living conditions. It was during the war. Parents were forced to suspend schooling of their children and spend a few weeks or months in refugee staging areas before returning.

We began to hear from friends who had joined the rebellion. We were told it was fighting for an ethnic group that was persecuted for a long time, and many Hutu who had studied had never been able to take advantage of their knowledge, and were killed while attending university because they were Hutu. We were told that ultimately we were wasting our time trying to study because we were not going to achieve anything — we had the misfortune of being born Hutu.

It was discouraging. Especially since all of us had either a direct relative, as I did, or a friend of the family who had been killed for his ethnicity. We eventually dropped out of school.

Life was unpredictable. On information that the army was coming through Kirekura, we would flee our homes for the woods in the morning and come back at five o’clock before returning for the night to avoid a surprise attack by thieves. They would take advantage of the crisis by robbing the population and taking what few possessions we had. Then we came back in the morning. Those who had fields would return to their fields; others with jobs went to their job for the day, and at night we returned to the bush.

Parents who sent their children to seek firewood or fetch water did so with much apprehension. We did not know what was coming. Sometimes, gunfire erupted and a mother, panicked, rushed to find her son, and the soldiers were shooting at him, thinking they were dealing with a rebel. This was the case of my friend Nathan.

Sometimes we learned that a relation had been hit by a shot. They wept, and the body was buried somewhere, and life went on. So many dead. Most of my former playmates, neighbors, friends, all were killed. Others paid the final price because they did not know which way to run — caught between the crossfire.

Troops of every side expected us to provide shelter for them. We gave information about the movements of others. The price of refusal was death.

There were Tutsi among us. For example Nkunzimana, a proper trader who never made use of ethnic discrimination. The Hutu who managed to reach his home always found a safe haven. This kindness was not always the case: There were other Tutsi who, rather, acted as guide to the army and told them where to find the hiding Hutus.

Then one day the attack occurred. Some military came one morning to 13th Avenue in Kirekura. They were methodically emptying every house. Then they ordered us to line up along the road. Suddenly, they began to fire into the crowd. We started to flee — some were hit by bullets while fleeing; others were pursued. I had a cousin whose arm was severed by a shot. Shortly after the attack, rumors began to circulate that the soldiers had killed the people in revenge for deaths of their own in fighting with the rebels.

One day, after a game of soccer, we gathered and started talking about friends who had joined the rebellion. We mentioned the news of those who were at the front, and we said that definitely, the bush was difficult to live in. But for me to spend two days without eating was very common. This is how the idea came to join the rebellion. I had nothing to lose; I could die at any moment. So better to be destroyed with a weapon in hand, like my childhood friends. And propaganda did the rest: The stories said that FNL fighters [the National Liberation Front, one of the Hutu groups fighting the Burundian regular army] were the most terrible, the best in combat. It was said that three FNLs could neutralize an entire regular army camp. And that led me to want to enter the bush with the FNL.

When the time came, I told my friend Emmanuel, who had the same idea but was hesitant.

It was in the afternoon, just after a soccer game. He told me of his fears: “My parents may refuse if I ask their permission; you know they care about what I do with my studies. Have you told your parents?”

I said no. I told him that it was up to me; I did not need to consult anyone. At least in the bush, I would not go two days without eating; I could go get my own food to eat.

There were people called guides, and everyone, especially children, had to go through them to join the rebellion. We knew. They had already asked me twice, but I told them that I had not yet made up my mind. One of them was called Longin, who had completed his studies in the humanities; he was about 30. He taught us the reasons for the creation of the FNL, the history of the movement. It was he who gave consent for the entry of young people into the FNL.

I went to see him, and I told him that finally I was ready to become a fighter. I was 13. He told me that I had been slow; some of my old friends now had weapons. A feeling of jealousy washed over me then, as if possession of a weapon was a precious thing I absolutely had to acquire. He asked me if I was alone; I told him that I was with Emmanuel. He told me I could go, and showing me a Vodafone, he said he would signal our arrival in his next report. At that time there were no mobile phones in the population; they were luxury goods for the rich people in the capital — especially Vodafone devices.

I remember the day, it was during the rainy season, just after the attacks by the military in Kinama. We got up early. It was just a few kilometers, and three fighters came to take us across the Muzazi River. We were two — me and Emmanuel. Five new recruits joined us; I recognized two of them. We were the youngest, me and Emmanuel.

Ninteretse: 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.

Read the whole interview on TakePart.com