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Safe havens: Burundi’s re-education centres protect formerly detained children

© UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
Yves stands in front of his hand-painted drum. He spent more than two years at Burundi’s biggest, most overcrowded prison. Now he leads a group of drummers at the at the Rumonge re-education centre.

By Eliane Luthi

When children are charged with criminal offenses in Burundi, many are sent to prisons where they are incarcerated alongside adults. The experience can be horrific and traumatic. But with the establishment of re-education centres in the country, these adolescents can stay in a safe space where they are offered counselling, learning opportunities, and even legal services for their ongoing cases.

RUMONGE, Burundi, 28 July 2016 – “Before, we used to play drums for the kings,” says Yves*, 17. “It’s a big part of Burundian culture.”

As Yves leads his group of drummers into the chorus of a new song, one would never guess that he has spent more than two years of his life in Mpimba – Burundi’s biggest, most overcrowded prison. Orphaned and accused of sexual assault, which he denies, Yves knows first-hand the type of horrors that children can face when they are incarcerated alongside adults. He also spent those two and half years in a state of constant hunger.

© UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
A large field and buildings in the Rumonge re-education centre complex. The centre welcomes adolescents aged 15 to 17 who were formerly incarcerated in adult prisons in Burundi.

“They only gave us rice and a few grams of beans per day,” he remembers with a shudder.

Yves is one of more than 70 children currently staying at the Rumonge re-education centre for children in conflict with the law. Set snugly outside the lakeside town of Rumonge, the centre welcomes adolescents aged 15 to 17 who were formerly incarcerated in adult prisons in Burundi. Alongside its sister centre in Ruyigi in eastern Burundi, the centre is an integral part of UNICEF’s justice work in the country – work that seeks to ensure no children are ever sent to adult prisons in the country again. 

“Prisons are essentially punitive,” explains Aline Kica Niyonkuru, Child Protection Officer at UNICEF. “But it’s not because a minor has committed an offense that he should be rejected. These re-education centres give that second chance to these children. They allow them to be re-educated and reintegrated into society later on.”

The two centres were inaugurated just two days before the socio-political crisis broke out in 2015, and in an important milestone for children’s rights advocates, all boys detained in any of Burundi’s 11 prisons were transferred to the centres. 

But with the onset of the crisis and a wave of mass arrests linked to political unrest, the centres have taken on newfound importance. 

>>  Meet Janvier: Rumonge's master chef

© UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
Yves holds a drumstick. Drumming is a way to keep morale high among the children at the centre.

Since April 2015, more than 300 children have been arrested and arbitrarily detained on crisis-related charges, including “participation in armed groups” and “involvement in demonstrations”, with many of them ending up in adult prisons.

Thanks to constant advocacy by UNICEF and partners such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Terre des Hommes, more than 100 of these children have been released and are already safe and back at home with their families. Others have been released from prison and are now in the safe, protective environment of the re-education centre as they await decisions on their court cases. In May 2016 alone, UNICEF and partners secured the release from prison and transfer of 60 boys towards these transitional spaces. 

Keeping morale high

With large windows and wide open spaces for sports and games, the Rumonge centre provides a bright and welcoming environment for children who have often been through traumatizing arrests and detentions. Mornings are spent between counselling and hygiene activities, while afternoons are spent playing soccer or volleyball, with vocational training due to start in the coming weeks. Children here also have access to legal services for the follow up of their cases. 

Today Yves leads his group of drummers through his two favourite songs, one about the beauty of Burundi and a second one about a young woman called Viviane. “We also play the drums to help the other children here, to make everyone happy,” Yves says.

© UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
Cyrille plays urbuguzo, a traditional Burundian board game. He is happy at the Rumonge centre, but dreams of returning home.

“Burundi, Burundi, you are beautiful like a calf,” the drummers sing in unison

Yves’s new life is a far cry from what he experienced in prison.

“Now I sleep on a proper bed, and I have enough to eat. The food is varied – we don’t always just eat cassava bread.”

It’s a feeling shared by Cyrille*, 16, who was a domestic labourer in Musaga and was arrested and charged with a serious crime when he asked his employer for his unpaid salary. 

“Here it’s like home,” he says with a smile. “I have friends, we can play games and learn.”

Like Yves, Cyrille enjoys Burundian traditions. He’s been playing urbuguzo, the traditional Burundian board game, for as long as he can remember. 

“My dream is to go home and help my parents in Gitega farm,” he says. “I’d also like to learn a second profession.”

Learning innovations

Children who have gone through detention often have spent long periods cut off from all opportunities to learn. In the Rumonge centre, solar-powered digital kiosks loaded with offline content give these children opportunities to learn more about ICT, numeracy, and literacy.

© UNICEF Burundi/2016/Haro
A boy works at a digital kiosk. The kiosks are loaded with offline content give these children opportunities to learn more about ICT, numeracy, and literacy.

Installed in November 2015, these kiosks provide opportunities for additional learning, stimulating curiosity and improving future employability among children who often face marginalization and stigmatization when they go back home.

After only one year of operating, numbers are already showing just how instrumental and effective the centres have been. The Rumonge centre has already helped 221 children who have experienced detention and legal issues – some of whom have also experienced abuse at the hands of adults during their arrest and detention. So far, only two cases of recidivism have occurred. 

“I am very optimistic about the children at these centres,” says Jean Niyongabo, who has been the director of the centre since it opened in April 2015.

“Here I feel free,” says Yves, standing next to his hand painted drum with a Burundian flag. “I’d like to be a mechanic one day.”

*names have been changed to protect identities



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