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

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I Was a Child Soldier

‘We gave ourselves for things for which we did not know the final price.’
Oct 15, 2015· 16 MIN READ
Roland Rugero is a Burundian writer, journalist, and literary activist.

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.

(Photo: Getty Images; photo-illustration: Marc Fusco)

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.

David Ninteretse in Burundi in October 2015. (Photo:
Arnaud Gwaga)

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.

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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.

(Map: Marc Fusco)

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.

Niyonkuru: After a week of military training, there was an attack by the army on our position. We did not know yet how to handle weapons. The commander then decided to take me to the troop’s safest hiding place, as I seemed to be the youngest but also the most promising.

The soldiers of the regular army failed to break through our lines, which did not stop me from feeling fear. When I saw the fighters after, they said they had done terrible things, things I could not imagine. They refused to give more details.

The commander who was in charge of military training then told me I was going to stay with the best instructors for accelerated training. My fight name was “Panther.” Others were also given such nicknames, like “Volcano,” “Tsunami,” and so on.

The leaders of the unit were very fond of child soldiers, mainly for their maneuverability. We could hide to monitor the passage of the regular troops, or they would put us in the trees. We could hide under rocks. It was also felt that we were loyal. We carried out orders without further thought.

Ninteretse: 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.

Niyonkuru: There were many prohibitions. It was forbidden to sit on a rock. It was forbidden to eat on Fridays. Whoever was caught having sex, or was accused of having had sex, was killed outside the camp, with a hoe.

Ninteretse: 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.

Niyonkuru: Similarly, desertion was punishable by death. We walked barefoot. Our uniform at first was shorts and a sweater. We could spend a month or two without washing.

In an ambush, we had orders not to shoot: Military must be killed with knives, so that their comrades wouldn’t hear the report and retaliate. As they had total superiority in ammunition, we were required to avoid an armed confrontation at the risk of condemning the rest of our comrades to death.

I would spend two weeks in the bush without eating cooked food. Sometimes, so as not to starve, I ate mud. Snakes, chimpanzees—anything that had flesh, we would gladly eat.

David Ninteretse

Ninteretse: 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.

Niyonkuru: In 2005, the command learned that the Burundian army had decided to expel us from our camps by destroying them from the air. The same day, the order was given to leave our positions and move into the forest of the Rukoko preserve. We reached the forest after four hours of walking.

It was at this point that the FND and the FNL began to hate each other. [FND was the military wing of another Hutu group, the CNDD, or National Council for the Defense of Democracy, fighting the Tutsi-dominated military. It joined the government in 2004 and, wanting a quick end to the fighting, began attacking its former ally, the FNL.] If an FNL recruit was accused of working in collusion with the FND, it was an immediate death.

This presented me with a great dilemma: Was this the promised fight? Should we decimate our brothers? One day I went to one of our commanders and I asked him, “Hutu are chasing Hutu now? Yet we should help each other, and enjoy taking power, to exit with dignity from this forest.” He gave me a long look and shook his head. Then he said: “Little one, I will not lie to you. Only God will get us out of this bush. None of us thought things would take this turn. We were only carrying out orders—you know how the army is.”

FND, having worked with us before, knew our tactics, and fighting in the Rukoko became so violent that morale collapsed. The military leaders of the FNL all fled to Kiliba in DRC. We felt that the fighting was now aimed at decimating the child soldiers. I searched for Emmanuel without finding him. I was going to desert, and to avoid getting lost in the forest, it was better to escape in twos or threes. I promised myself I would find him. I would go with two or three child soldiers and find school uniforms or civilian attire. Nobody would doubt us if they saw us on the road; we were rebels, but we looked like children.

But it was impossible to tear myself away from the military adventure. The fight had taken the whole meaning of my life. I imagined it would be hard to become a civilian overnight, and sometimes I found myself fervently wishing to remain underground. And the atmosphere in the camp was very heavy. The suspicion was terrible. Surely there were others who wanted to leave, but no one could say so for fear of being denounced and killed.

Ninteretse: 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.

Niyonkuru: Without warning, we learned that negotiations to end the war had failed. That night, around four in the morning, in anger, seeing that we were going back to the bush and believing there was no way to escape death, I just asked a comrade, his name was Niyonzima, to hold my gun for me while I went to relieve myself. And I took off. I did not want to take the risk of deserting with my gun because I knew that the fighters would pursue me throughout the country to kill me.

I hastened to regain the main road and walked along, taking care not to be too visible. I had my cheeks swollen from malnutrition, yellowed hair, dirty clothes. It was around 6 a.m. when I reached Kirekura and the family home, after four years of absence.

The emotion was immense. Most of those who saw me that morning cried. The others looked at me with dismay, as if I was coming back from the dead. To cut the links between combatants and their families, fighters are often sent to tell them that their children were killed in action. And so as not to experience the atrocities of war thinking of his parents or brothers and sisters, child soldiers were told the same about their families.

Agathon Rwasa at the opening of the National Assembly in July 2015. Rwasa, the main opposition leader in Burundi, was Shadrack Niyonkuru's commanding officer during the war. (Photo: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

Some would not believe it was me, and they bombarded me with questions about my parents and my family in general, again and again, to be really sure that I was back. Then they cooked food, I took a shower, and then dinner.

To prevent the army from picking me up to extract information about the rest of the rebel troops still in the bush, it was decided that I would stay at home for a long time, in secret. So the days passed until a neighbor, Lazarus, decided to turn me in, in blackmail, in exchange for our land. He sent my uncle a short message: “If you want to keep your boy Shadrack alive, yield me your land, and I will not denounce him to the military.” I knew the price of my surrender: It was death.

I felt naked on hearing this threat. I remembered how I had protected the son of Lazarus, who was an informer for the army, but I had never denounced him to the fighting units operating in the Kirekura sector. I remembered all that we had shared with Lazarus. My uncle explained to me that in fact, Lazarus has long coveted the land.

The night when my uncle told me the news, I decided to spend the night outdoors for fear that Lazarus would come with a squad of soldiers. In the cold of the night, alone, vulnerable, unarmed, while for years I could not spend the night under the stars without means of protection, I decided to go back to the bush.

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The same night, around 4 a.m., I left. When I came to a camp for FNL combatants, the watchmen asked my identity. I introduced myself; I said that I had escaped capture by soldiers of the regular army. I was praised for my courage, and a weapon was handed to me. I decided never to desert again.

Ninteretse: 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.

Niyonkuru: The following months were very trying for the fighters, the incessant fighting gradually taking the oldest within the FNL. We now had doubts.

I will never forget one of the last battles in advance of the final negotiations that led to the end of the war, in the locality of Kivomo. We ran out of ammunition and were reduced to martial arts and melee combat. A soldier brought me a knife.

That’s when we heard the FNL spokesman, Pasteur Habimana, request that 3,100 fighters join the quartering areas for the demobilization process.

It is then that we began to hope to regain normal life after years in the bush. I went to see the commander, asking to be included on the list of top fighters who were to be sent to the assembly areas. I was frank: I was tired of fighting these years.

He told me, “You will be among the first on the list, so that you can go eat some corned beef.” I did not sleep all night.

Arriving at the assembly site, we were greeted by U.N. officials. We were so happy to eat rice again, after years of deprivation and hunger.

Ninteretse: 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.

Demobilized child soldiers in a rehabilitation center in Gitega, Burundi, on Dec. 10, 2004. (Photo: Esdras Ndikumana/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Niyonkuru: We were in training to return to civilian life, but we were disappointed because the end of the armed struggle promised to be different from what we had been told. The ideology of the party told us that the FNL would take the country by force of arms, which, it was increasingly evident, would not be true.

[Demobilized soldiers would receive payment of 100,000 Burundian francs, or about $80. To ensure the FNL did not, for political gain, artificially inflate the number of soldiers who had been fighting for them, they needed to be verified as soldiers.]

Just before the army came to verify that we knew how to wield weapons, for the demobilization process, I asked two friends to accompany me to Lazarus. I wanted to have a peaceful return, and for that, Lazarus had to die. I had decided to kill him. I did not want to deal with these threats. But, the day before my expedition, fortune prevailed, and he died.

Some days later, senior members of the regular army came to the camp at Gitega where they held us to check if we were real rebels. They asked for a platoon leader, company commander, and a battalion chief. The test was to dismantle and assemble a weapon in less than four minutes.

We did it in two minutes.

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.