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Sporting chance at a new life for former child soldiers in Burundi

© UNICEF Burundi/2009/Ajia
UNICEF Representative in Burundi Gloria Kodzwa coaches former child soldiers on basketball.

By Olalekan Ajia

GITEGA, Burundi, 14 April 2009 – At an impromptu sports clinic, UNICEF Representative in Burundi Gloria Kodzwa gave a strong pep talk to 112 children separated last week from Burundi’s last rebel group, the Palipehutu-FNL.

Ms. Kodzwa was on a visit to the Gitega Demobilization Centre to assess the situation of the children and to deliver a UNICEF recreation kit for their use.

Herself a former Olympic bronze medalist in basketball, Ms. Kodzwa coached the young people on that game and on tossing Frisbees. Leading by example, she also coaxed several of them to try skipping rope.

Questions about the future

When the sports and applause were over, the young people – who have seen war at close quarters for up to five years – raised serious questions about their welfare in the centre and their future prospects. Some still need new clothes and shoes to replace their military fatigues and boots. Blankets are in short supply, as well.

The youths said they were eager to receive their separation allowances and return home. Ms. Kodzwa assured them that UNICEF will continue to work with the government to ensure their quick transition, but she advised patience and cooperation during their rehabilitation by the non-governmental Organization for Development of the Archdiocese of Gitega.

Rehabilitation services, she stressed, will provide the psychosocial, medical and material support necessary for their successful reintegration into their families and communities.

Ms. Kodzwa noted that some time was needed to prepare their families to receive them and to prepare the young people themselves for a fresh start in life. A government official at the Demobilization Centre, Pierre Kugira, also told them that the remaining supplies were forthcoming.

Hard road to children’s release

The 112 boys and two girls were released on 2 April by the Agathon Rwasa FNL, which has now filed papers for registration as a political party. Negotiations for the release of the children – conducted by the United Nations, the World Bank, UNICEF, the African Union and others in the international community – lasted two grueling years.

The Governments of France and Spain are providing financial support for the rehabilitation and reintegration of the children.

© UNICEF Burundi/2009/Ajia
Former child soldiers are driven into the premises of Peace House following their demobilization.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Facilitator of the Burundi Peace Process has congratulated the Government of Burundi and the FNL for this important step. It noted, however, that the international community expects the immediate and unconditional release of the remaining children associated with the FNL, for reunification with their families.

Thousands reintegrated

Between 2004 and 2006, UNICEF, in collaboration with the then Office of the United Nations in Burundi and other partners, helped the Government of Burundi to rehabilitate and reintegrate over 3,000 former child soldiers. Last year, UNICEF assisted in separating and rehabilitating another group of 220 children formerly associated with a ‘dissident faction’ of the FNL.

At the end of her visit with the newly released young people here last week, Ms. Kodzwa of UNICEF promised to return in two weeks to ensure that all is well and to assess their sporting prowess. She later said that seeing the high morale of the children and their faith in the future was the best 61st birthday gift she could have hoped for.

On the visit, Ms. Kodzwa was accompanied by the Child Protection Officer from the Integrated Office of the United Nations in Burundi, Bernadette Sene, the Humanitarian Officer of the Executive Secretariat of the International Conference of the Great Lakes, Andre Samba, and UNICEF Acting Head of Child Protection Cristina Gonzalez.



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