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Burundian children cross to safety, and back again

By Patsy Nakell

A mother in Burundi sends her children out of the country to protect them from rising violence. When they fall ill, she is forced to make the journey herself.

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
“It felt awful to wake up without our mother,” says 10-year old Divin, who with his sister Centia crossed by boat from Burundi to Rwanda.

KIRUNDO, Burundi, 5 June 2015 – “It felt awful to wake up in the morning and realize we were not at home with our mother,” says 10-year-old Divin, tearfully describing life with his sister Centia, alone in a transit center in Rwanda. Centia, who is 12, sits next to him, her head bowed. She tears up every time she remembers their escape.

We are in Bugabira, Kirundo, a hilly, lush village near Burundi’s northern border with Rwanda. Since violent demonstrations engulfed Burundi’s capital in April, leaving at least five children dead, Burundians have crossed into neighboring countries en masse, including Rwanda, where the official number of refugees is around 30,000.

In reality, the number is likely higher. The border with Rwanda is porous, with numerous clandestine crossing points.

An overwhelming majority of those who have fled are children, many of them unaccompanied.

A warning

For Burundians, civil conflict is all too familiar. The last ended only 10 years ago, leaving around 300,000 people dead. Any violence – or rumour thereof – is quick to bring back traumatic memories.

“My oldest daughter, who is married, kept warning me that things were getting bad, and that I should get the children out,” says Joséphine, Centia’s and Divin’s widowed mother, who is a teacher in the nearby primary school. “But I brushed it off.”

Then one day, her daughter convinced her that unless they left immediately, they would all be killed.

“You must leave now, she kept insisting, or you and the children will die,” Joséphine recalls, still visibly shaken by the situation she found herself in.

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
"I kept saying a prayer in my heart that we would be okay," says Centia, 12.

“I did not sleep at all that night. I was so frightened,” she continues, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I had to save at least my children. I said to myself they will not die in this house.”

Convinced of her daughter’s words, Joséphine paid the equivalent of US$7 to an acquaintance, and at around 4 a.m. the next morning, when it was still dark, Centia and Divin climbed into a wooden pirogue with nine other people, including three children, and paddled as fast as they could across Lake Cohoha, into Rwanda.

“It took three hours to cross. We were all very quiet,” says Centia. “Someone was listening to the news on a mobile phone. I kept saying a prayer in my heart that we would be okay.”

Once they arrived on the other side, they walked two hours to a safe house, and the next day were taken by car to a camp, where they finally had something to eat.

“We had beans and corn once a day, but there was a nun that brought us more food sometimes,” Centia says.

Waking up away from home and away from their mother was awful, they both say.

And then one day, things got worse.

“We had fever and got very sick. It was malaria,” says Centia, sobbing quietly.

A mother’s worry

Back home, Joséphine, who had kept in touch with her children over mobile phone, grew increasingly worried. The horrifying rumours in Kirundo had not materialized, but now another fear had replaced the first one: that she would lose her children to illness, somewhere far away.

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Nijimbere
Joséphine, mother of Divin and Centia, says she will send her children away again if they are in danger.

The moment she felt it was safe enough, Joséphine took the same boat across the lake and brought Centia and Divin back home.

Now things are ok, she assures us – she doesn’t feel afraid anymore.

“But I don’t regret sending them,” says Joséphine. “I will do it again if my children’s lives are threatened.”

Although Joséphine brought her children back, the vast majority of refugees coming from Kirundo remain on the Rwandan side of the border. UNICEF is coordinating with partners to track movements of children and families from Burundi into neighboring countries.

In Rwanda, emergency response to the high number of refugee children includes providing ready-to-eat therapeutic food to treat acute malnutrition, child protection and gender-based violence services, construction of child-friendly spaces including recreational activities, and mass immunization of children against common diseases such as measles and polio.



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