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Burundi: Former child soldier recovers and rejoins community

The Child Soldier Prevention Act would restrict U.S. military assistance to governments that use children in conflicts — children like John, who joined the Burundian army at age 9.

March 2008

John, once a child soldier in the Burundian army, has since been rehabilitated through a World Vision program that has enabled him to open a hair styling business with another former child soldier.
John, once a child soldier in the Burundian army, has since been rehabilitated through a World Vision program, enabling him to open a barber shop with another former child soldier.
© 2008 Venerande Murekambanze/World Vision
Bizimana Jean Marie, who goes by the name John, was born in Burundi just a few years before civil war broke out in 1993 — a war that would define the next 15 years of John's life.

A soldier at 9

When John was just 2 years old, his father was murdered in war-related violence. "My mother told me that we were mysteriously saved from the killings by a good-hearted neighbor who hid us in a big hole, although we were not of the same ethnic group," he recalls.

After his father's death, John and his mother were moved to an internal displacement camp, where they lived in a small tent and survived on one meal per day.

At age 9, John was recruited to join the national army. Although many children were forcibly recruited, either by opposition groups or by the national army, John willingly entered the Burundian army. It seemed to have more to offer than life in a displacement camp. "They didn't force me at all but … I was only 9 years [old]. I felt the need to stay with them, as life with Mum was a real hardship," he says.

Because he was young, John was given the job of cleaner, cook, and ammunition carrier. Eventually, he and other young soldiers were taught to shoot.

Life in the army was terrifying. "Sometimes I thought I was dead because [I was] hearing guns' noise around me…" he explains.

Released and reintegrated

In 2004, after five years of servitude, John was released from the army through World Vision's Child Reintegration Project. In collaboration with the Burundian government and UNICEF, the project prepares children to be integrated back into their communities and prepares the communities to accept them.

The lasting effects of war and abuse remain with children like John long after the shooting stops. Specific interventions that World Vision employs to help former child soldiers to recover and reintegrate may include:

  • Providing care for physical and emotional recovery
  • Coordinating family reunification
  • Raising awareness about the need to protect children from exploitation
  • Sensitizing communities for child reintegration
  • Following up on children who have been reintegrated
  • Providing educational and skills training opportunities

World Vision trained John to be a barber and provided him with the necessary tools to practice his trade. In 2005, John opened his own shop and has been partnering with another former child soldier, also trained by World Vision. "We are proud we work as professionals, and people trust in our services," John says.

Child soldiers: The cold, hard facts

Download a one-page document (pdf file) containing talking points about the child soldier crisis. Use the messaging guidelines to send a letter to your elected official, hold conversations with congressional staff, or form your comments at speaking engagements and other educational events.

Not just Burundi

Tragically, an estimated 250,000 children under 18 are involved in armed conflicts worldwide. These child soldiers serve as combatants, porters, human mine detectors, and sex slaves.

According to the Center for Defense Information, the U.S. government provides military assistance to 6 of the 8 government reportedly implicated in child soldier usage — until recently, Burundi was one such country. U.S. military assistance to these nations ranges from small amounts of funding for military training to hundreds of millions in weapons, training, and military financing.

The Child Soldier Prevention Act

World vision firmly opposes the use of taxpayer dollars to support the exploitation of children as soldiers. Moreover, U.S. weapons should not end up in the hands of children.

A bill now before Congress, the Child Soldier Prevention Act, would put restrictions on U.S. military assistance for governments that use children as soldiers. Countries that take steps to demobilize child soldiers would be eligible for certain forms of assistance in that process for up to two years — to help professionalize their forces and ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars are not used to finance the exploitation of children in armed conflict.

"Children in these armed groups face some of the worst forms of abuse imaginable," says Joseph Mettimano, World Vision's vice president of advocacy. "They endure rape, torture, and the trauma of having to commit atrocities against others — even those in their own communities. Passing this bill could save the lives and preserve the childhoods of countless children."

For more than a year, World Vision has been working to ensure the passage of this bill through meetings with congressional members, awareness-raising campaigns, and grassroots mobilization. To date, more than 10,000 World Vision advocates have sent messages to Congress in support of the bill.

Its passage would be a significant step in combating this offensive practice that has profoundly wounded children like John and thousands of other children — children whose God-given potentials may be realized only if they are protected from the horrors of armed conflict at a young age.

Learn more

>> Check out (pdf file) the facts about the global use of child soldiers and how World Vision is responding to this crisis.

Three ways you can help

>> Pray for the children who are harmed by conflict. Pray also that the governments, paramilitary and rebel groups that force children into battle would halt these horrific practices.
>> Send a message to your congressional representatives asking them to support the Child Soldier Prevention Act.
>> Make a monthly financial pledge to help provide for the needs of children affected by war.

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