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27 Nov 2015 00:00
An estimated 5000 children are sleeping on Bujumbura’s streets. The flight of foreign donors and rising food prices are putting them at increased risk. (Spencer Platt, Getty)
Dieudonné Ntahomvukiye remembers all
too well how it felt to
be a homeless child in
Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, one of the world’s hungriest countries.
“[Street children] have the face
of a child but the heart of an adult,”
says the social worker who lived
rough for three years from the
age of five and who now counsels
In 1989, Ntahomvukiye decided
to leave home “because I thought I
could live better than in my family”.
His father was an alcoholic and his
mother was struggling to feed him
and his three younger siblings. “But
that’s where the misery started,”
After three years that were scarred
by rape and drug abuse, he was “no
longer a kid”, he says.
His sister and brothers joined
him on the streets after their parents were killed in an ethnic massacre at the start of a 12-year civil war
Soon after, he was taken in
by the children’s rights organisation Oeuvre Humanitaire pour la
Protection et le Développement
de l’Enfant en Difficulté (OPDE – Humanitarian Work for the Protection and Development of Children in
A decade after the end of the civil
war, poverty is still pervasive in this
central African country – and conflict has reignited.
On Monday, United States
President Barack Obama slapped
sanctions, including visa restrictions,
on four current or former senior
security officials in Burundi, linking them to the country’s descent
Families too poor to support the kidsAs Burundi lurches between a fragile peace and all-out fighting, homeless children find their precarious
existences tilting to the impossible.
Nitunga Barengayabo is one of
them. His mother says he is 15, but
he looks no older than 12. He pays
the owner of a bar and nightclub to
sleep beside the building every night.
His only possessions are a black plastic bag and a jacket for cold nights.
On a good day, he will make about
1 000 Burundian francs (about R9)
from begging. He used to go around
with his younger brother, but the
pair became separated during the
chaos of a May coup attempt that followed the decision by the president,
Pierre Nkurunziza, to stand for a third time in elections.
As Major General Godefroid Niyombare and his rebel forces battled to capture the capital, children
who had been trying to sell plastic
bags for a few francs and collecting
leftover fruit from around the central market hid behind flimsy stalls.
Rival factions of Burundi’s security
services exchanged heavy fire and
grenades exploded around them.
Eventually, the coup was defeated;
Niyombare fled and so did Nitunga’s
brother. “He will never come back,”
the teenager says.
The boys’ mother had been unable
to support them and used to send
the pair off from their hillside home
near Bujumbura to beg in the city
for weeks at a time. Neither child
has a birth certificate and so neither
has ever been to school.
Nitunga Barengayabo’s case is not
unusual. Boys and girls in ragged
clothing occupy almost every street
in central Bujumbura, the centre
of much of the violence of recent
months. Most of these children have
families but their relatives are too
poor to support them.
An economic crisis will be ‘devastating’Since April, at least 240 people,
including 17 children, have been
killed and more than 200 000 have
fled to neighbouring states. Many
thousands more have left their
homes and sought refuge inside
Burundi; some do not cross the border for fear they will be stopped by
militia, according to a recent study
by Refugees International.
According to the OPDE, which specialises in reintegrating street children, about 5 000 children regularly
sleep rough in Bujumbura, which
has a population of some 500 000.
“Since the crisis, there has been
a concrete impact on the children of the street,” says Pascal
Ndayikengurukiye, the OPDE’s assistant national co-ordinator. Most
street children beg, but pickings are
particularly slim now because many
people have left the city.
sometimes leads children to steal – and then they can end up being
detained by heavy-handed police.
At night, the children share their
spoils – “whatever they can get”,
says Ndayikengurukiye, adding that
this often includes alcohol, hash
“Schools have been hit by grenades, children have been caught
in protests, and there are various
areas where police are in school
areas as a show of force, which stops
children being able to go to school,”
says James Elder, a spokesperson for
the UN children’s agency, Unicef,
“During the day, things look quite
normal and during the night things
get quite tense. There are regular
explosions and gunfire almost on a nightly basis,” he says, adding that recently scores of children were
detained and accused of being in
an armed group before being jailed
in an adult facility. Unicef managed to get them transferred to an
As well as risking injury or death
in the violence, children are likely to
go hungry as development stalls and
as foreign donors withdraw funding over concerns about the crackdown
on protests and the legitimacy of
“Food prices have increased by
around 10% from a year ago. When
you have got a country where most
people survive on less than $1.25 [a
day], a 10% increase in the cost of
living is a substantial increase,” says
Elder, adding that malnutrition rates
are on the rise.
Unicef has warned that an economic crisis in Burundi will be
devastating for children. “Children
shouldn’t suffer twice in terms of
economic decline and reduced foreign support,” says Elder. “There
are always ways to target support
so it reaches the most vulnerable,
and there is a strong case to do that
now more than ever.” – © Guardian
News & Media 2015
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