BUJUMBURA, 5 April 2011 (IRIN) - The lucky ones among Burundi's 3,421 former child soldiers who went through a demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) process returned to school but most languish in poverty, with little to do, officials told IRIN.
"We receive cases every day of these people saying their life is undermined by poverty, which prevents them from developing," Serge Mpawenayo, a supervisor of reintegrated former child soldiers in Matongo commune of Kayanza Province, said.
Cyprien Ndayishimiye, supervisor of former child soldiers in Bubanza province, said those in Bubanza and Cibitoke provinces, western Burundi, faced a similar predicament.
Ndayishimiye said the situation for many former child soldiers was "dangerous" as even those who underwent vocational training during reintegration had yet to find gainful employment or set up income-generating activities.
"Many have even sold the materials they got from the DDR programme, such as sewing machines for those who learned sewing, and planes for those who hoped carpentry would help them," Ndayishimiye said.
Burundi's DDR programme began operating in 2005, two years after civil war ended in the country with the establishment of a transitional government.
Initially, the World Bank funded the Programme de Démobilisation et de Réinsertion Transitoire, but this funding ended in July 2010. The programme is currently supported by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), through local NGOs.
According to Sogoba Bakary, head of protection for UNICEF in Burundi, the agency's role in the demobilization process was structured around advocacy with armed groups, identifying the children and their families, support for transitional life, family tracing, reunification of the children with their families, supporting the coordination process in general and monitoring post-reunification.
"In the context of the demobilization of children associated with armed groups and forces since the [programme's] starting date, UNICEF has received support from French Cooperation and Belgium, giving a total of at least US$591,000," Sogoba said.
Désiré Ndagijimana, spokesman for the DDR programme, told IRIN some 3,041 former child soldiers underwent DDR between 2005 and 2008 while 380 others underwent the programme between 2009 and 2010.
Ndagijimana said those who resumed learning after being reunited with their families had fared better.
"Those who are at school have few problems because they are doing well at school," Ndagijimana told IRIN, adding that 102 such children returned to school, 23 of them to primary and the rest to secondary schools.
Ndagijimana said some of those who returned to school have joined university.
Those who sustained injuries while serving as soldiers continue to receive medical help from the DDR programme, he said.
Of the former child soldiers who have undergone DDR, 380 had served in the Forces nationales de libération (FNL), the country's last rebel group to join government.
"At the separation step, we separated them from adults at a transit centre; at the second step, we sought to find out from them what vocational programme could help them in order not to send them to face a difficult life that could tempt them to robbery," he said. "At the last step, we gave them money or other material they said could help them; this was done when the children were already re-united with their families."
While Ndagijimana played down problems facing former child soldiers who returned to school, a group of them in Bubanza said they were facing difficulties due to lack of school fees. They said they could be sent home for failure to pay fees.
UNICEF's Sogoba told IRIN the former child soldiers who opted for school after demobilization continue to receive UNICEF support.
Sogoba said: "Besides attention given to these children associated with armed groups and who have been regularly demobilized, UNICEF is in charge of other children who are known as 'self-demobilized' children - those who decided to go home without passing by any known demobilization structures."
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, visited Burundi in 2007 and commended the country for its demobilization of former child soldiers.