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 homeless children.
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,” he says.
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 in 1993. 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 Difficulty).
A decade after the end of the civil war, poverty is still pervasive in this central African country – and conflict has reignited. On November 12, the United Nations Security Council voted to adopt a resolution condemning the killings, torture and human rights abuses that have taken place since a political crisis erupted in April.
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 into violence.
Families too poor to support the kids
As 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.
Desperation 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 and glue.
“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, in Bujumbura.
“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 education centre.
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 the election.
“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