RUYIGI, 25 February (IRIN) - In Burundi's eastern province of Ruyigi, where fighting rages between the army and the country's largest rebel group, a shelter for child victims of war and AIDS has been all but overwhelmed by the arrival of newborn babies rescued from the combat zones.
Thirteen malnourished babies with bulging stomachs and oversized heads lie two by two in cribs scattered in five different rooms. Most of their mothers died during childbirth, others were killed while fleeing the fighting, leaving their babies helpless in the bush. Some babies were brought to the shelter, after three weeks in the bush, only to die on arrival. Of a total of 18 such babies brought in last week, five have since died. The others are undergoing intense medical care.
"Eighteen newborn babies mean that 18 mothers have died helplessly. Things have gone too far. Silence is complicity. If we do not raise our voices to denounce this, we are condemning our future as a nation," Marguerite Barankitse, the founder and director of the shelter, Maison Shalom, told IRIN.
The shelter was created in 1993, coincidentally with the outbreak of violence. A group of Hutu and Tutsi children hid in Barankitse's home, fleeing their parents' murderers. Barankitse, whom the children call O'Ma, risked being killed when she refused to yield to the threats of the persecutors.
Her defiance survives intact, 10 years after the outbreak of the civil war. Maison Shalom now cares for 62 babies, 43 of them HIV positive. Each social worker there is assigned three babies. Working round the clock, they look exhausted.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says none of the humanitarian actors has had access to the Ruyigi area for over a month now. The total number of displaced people is still unknown, but masses of people are fleeing farther into the hills away from the rebels and the government army.
Rebels of Pierre Nkurunziza's faction of the Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie-Forces pour la defense de la democratie occupy Moso, an area some 15 km southeast of Ruyigi town. The area was chosen as one of the cantonment zones for the rebel group under a ceasefire accord.
However, despite the accord, attacks on civilians in the area have been increasing since the beginning of the year. The rebels have been looting property and livestock. People are also accusing the army of repression directed against those thought to be "supportive" of the rebels. Gang rapes of women by uniformed men have also increased. Last week alone, seven cases of rape were reported to communal health centres. Area military authorities have denied any involvement of soldiers in these acts.
The prevailing feeling among the civilians is that things will calm down as soon as food distributions to the rebels begin. The administrative authorities have already told the public that a distribution point will be set up in the province. Humanitarian workers say a food distribution has already been scheduled for Wednesday, if the security situation permits.
However, recent developments affecting the implementation of a ceasefire process inspire no hope in the hearts of the people in conflict-stricken areas. People of all ethnic groups in the region want to see changes made with a view to alleviating their suffering.
"Politicians wage war, and we in the civil society are left to pick up the broken pieces. Words are not enough; there must be a sincere will on the part of the belligerents for the violations to end," Barankitse said.
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