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His Head Swimming In Hash, A Former Child Soldier In Burundi Recalls His Many Kills

Seven years after Burundi’s civil war came to an end, Sylvère Ndayishimiye, a former child soldier forced into action by the rebel FNL army, is still trying to shake his memories of murder and mayhem. He made his first kill with a knife – straight to the

By one estimate, there are some 250,000 child and adolescent soldiers in the world (Gilbert G. Groud)
By one estimate, there are some 250,000 child and adolescent soldiers in the world (Gilbert G. Groud)
Philipp Hedemann

BURURI -- Sylvère Ndayishimiye, his gaze clouded from the joints he smokes, stares ahead blankly as he tells his story.

"There was terror in his eyes. He was screaming for mercy," Ndayishimiye recalls. "I rammed the knife into his heart. That was the first time I killed. There were about 35 more times after that, but I was allowed to shoot them with a Kalashnikov so it wasn't so bad."

Drugs are supposed to help him forget, except they're not strong enough. The past keeps coming back at him, all the time. Like many other boys and girls in Burundi, 22-year-old Ndayishimiye was a child soldier in the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis -- rebels and government -- in which more than 250,000 people died.

"We had taken some government soldiers prisoner," the young man recalls. "He was a Tutsi. Four men were holding him down on the ground. They put a knife in my hand and said: ‘Now it's your turn!"" That's the way Ndayishimiye remembers the day he first took another's life -- and destroyed his own. "He was about 35 years old. I was 15. I said: ‘I can't do it!" ‘Kill him, or we'll kill you," they said. They had their Kalashnikovs ready. So I stabbed him," says the young Hutu in a tired voice.

As the blood of the man he'd killed grew cold on his hand, the fighters of the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), the Burundian Hutu rebel organization, celebrated a mission accomplished. But Ndayishimiye's soul was as dead as the soldier he'd just killed. "Shooting the other men was a lot easier. I didn't have to look into their eyes. Only the man that I stabbed – I still have dreams about it," the former child soldier says.

According to the humanitarian organization Terre des Hommes, there are some 250,000 child and adolescent soldiers in the world. There are also a lot of girls among underage fighters. Most child soldiers are recruited in Africa and Asia.

Burundi, with its paucity of natural resources, is the third poorest country in the world. Average life expectancy is 50.4 years (as opposed to 80.4 in Germany) and about two-thirds of the population lives on less than one euro a day. Only 2% have electricity in their homes.

The civil war, which lasted from 1993 to 2005, is the main reason for the catastrophic situation in the former German colony. For decades, Tutsis comprised the political and economic elite even though 85% of the population is Hutu. In 1993, when a Hutu president was democratically elected, he was assassinated after 100 days in office. Civil war ensued.

Drugs and indoctrination

Sylvère Ndayishimiye, the son of a farmer, has never seen the inside of a school. The war turned him into a killer against his will. He was at his job as a cook when 13 heavily-armed FNL fighters abducted him. On the same day, they cut a code into his left arm with a dirty knife, then cut his rank – "scout" – into his right arm. For the rest of his life he will bear the nasty scars that remind him of the worst two years of his life.

For two months, Ndayishimiye schlepped munitions and food as the rebels fled government soldiers. The fear of death was constant. Then, in the Burudian jungle, his military training began. He practiced Kung Fu, and learned how to use a pistol, a Kalashnikov and hand grenades. His first killing was his final exam.

"I got drugs from my captain – mostly cannabis from Tanzania. At night, we used to plunder villages and smoke and drink everything we could lay our hands on. The drugs took away the fear," he recalls. Now, he has to buy the drugs that are supposed to take away the fear of his dreams and memories. He's got just enough hash wrapped in a banana leaf by his bed to get him through the night.

The FNL used political indoctrination along with drugs to turn Ndayishimiye and others like him into unconditional killers. "They told me we were fighting on the side of right, fighting for freedom. As soon as we got into power and our leader became president, every family would get a cow and a goat. And I believed it," he admits, adding that he now feels ashamed for believing it.

Théodora Nisabwe, a psychology professor at the University of Burundi in the capital Bujumbura, says that children are easy to manipulate. "A lot of times they don't know the exact difference between good and bad," says Nisabwe, who recently authored a UN study on child soldiers. "They want recognition, but they can't correctly estimate where dangers lies, and don't grasp the finality of death. Child soldiers are systematically trained away from having feelings, so they often become particularly brutal."

Turning kids into spies and sex slaves

Some of the information to emerge from Nisabwe's report, besides the fact that child soldiers are cheaper than regular soldiers, is that in the Burundian civil war, many of those young killers were street children. Some orphans joined up with the rebels voluntarily in the hope that they would be protected, but most were forced into serving the FNL. In interviews with former child soldiers, the psychologist discovered that young fighters were often used in the front lines as "cannon fodder" or -- because they did not awake suspicion -- as spies.

Girls were often used as sex slaves for male soldiers. "The girls who survived are mostly heavily traumatized, and too little is being done to reintegrate them into society," the professor says. "Very few of them got any schooling after the conflict ended." Since child soldiers learn to take what they want through violent means, they often become criminals after conflicts end.

"We were good soldiers, though," says Sylvère Ndayishimiye looking back. "There were fewer of us than there were government troops, but we were able to ambush them, to strike, time and time again." There were seven other children in his 200-man unit. He saw four of them die, and he himself had a few close brushes with death. During one fight, he was hit in the calf by a bullet from a Kalashnikov and taken prisoner. When he refused to divulge where the rebels were hiding, a soldier rammed a knife through his foot. Despite the horrendous pain he kept mum, before finally being rescued by the rebels. The badly-healed foot wound left him with a limp.

Another war on the horizon?

A few months after he was rescued, the killing during one fight got too much for him and he snuck away from his unit. "If they'd caught me, they would have tied me up and shot me from behind. But I would rather have been killed than have to go on killing," Ndayishimiye says. Why didn't he try to get away sooner? Ndayishimiye says he never saw an opportunity before. "When we weren't actually fighting, they gave me just two bullets for my rifle. If they'd found me, I would only have been able to kill two of them and the others would have killed me."

Two years after his abduction, back in his hometown of Bururi, even his parents were scared of the son they had long thought dead. "Everybody was frightened of me, nobody wanted to give me a job, and no girls wanted to go out with me even though I never once raped a woman."

Since 2011, politically motivated violence has been playing out increasingly in Burundi. According to human rights groups, in the last six months state security officials have executed over 300 former rebels and opposition supporters. "A killing machine is sweeping the country killing supporters of opposition parties," says Onesphore Nduwayo, president of an umbrella organization for civil society in Burundi.

The reputed International Crisis Group warns that many former child soldiers, faced with no perspectives, could end up joining rebel forces again. Armed groups are apparently paying good money, and with the countless number of guns in circulation in Burundi, experts fear the country could be headed for another civil war.

"How can that be? We killed, and were killed. For nothing. Everybody's worse off than before," says Ndayishimiye, who has sworn never to touch another weapon. "Anything but war."

Read the original article in German

Photo - Gilbert G. Groud

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