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.
Shadrack joined the FNL rebellion after the army came to his village and killed a number of his relatives and neighbours, he was 13 years old. Shadrack tells of his experience as a child soldier and how he came to leave the rebellion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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