Geopolitics

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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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