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With help from UNICEF and community volunteers, families start over in Burundi

© UNICEF Burundi/2011/Krzysiek
Etienne (not his real name) plays with his neice. He is amongst the beneficiaries of a community-based protection network for vulnerable families affected by Burundi's 15-year civil conflict.

By Pawel Krzysiek

BUBANZA, Burundi, 21 July 2011 – When Etienne returned from 12 years spent as an illegal refugee in Tanzania, he met his son Denis for the first time (names changed to protect family privacy). In 1999, before Denis was born, Etienne had been forced to leave Burundi, fleeing from escalating violence in his home province of Bubanza, which was hard hit by the country’s 15-year civil war.

Having landed in a Tanzanian prison, Etienne only managed to return home when Denis was almost an adolescent. Fearful and uncertain of his future as a father – and of returning to a changed community in the country he had left so long ago – Etienne arrived back in his village, Shari, in early 2011.

For Denis, life without his father had been hard. He was deprived of happy early childhood years by the misery of conflict. His mother left him when he was just five; she was unable to support him and under pressure from her new husband, who refused to accept his stepson. Abandoned for a second time, Denis was sent to live with his aunt, Etienne’s sister.

Support system

In 2010, Denis was identified as a vulnerable child and included in a UNICEF-supported programme for orphans and other children at risk in Bubanza. Through the programme, UNICEF identifies the families worst-affected by the conflict in Burundi and offers them psycho-social support, education and help with reintegration into their communities.

© UNICEF Burundi/2011/Krzysiek
More than 200 war-affected orphans and vulnerable children - including the group of adolescents seen here - have received psycho-social support and financial assistance from a reintegration programme in the Burundian province of Bubanza.

As part of the reintegration effort, Denis received assistance from peer educators – other young boys with life stories similar to his own. They helped him learn how to cope with pressure, manage stress and develop skills for negotiating new challenges in the years to come 
The programme changed Denis’s life, providing him with a support system in the absence of his immediate family. But nothing could have quite prepared him for the unexpected return of his father.

Today, Denis and Etienne are slowly building a new life together in Shari. Guided by community social workers from the reintegration programme, Etienne is earning the trust of his son, and Denis is learning to trust again.

Protecting child rights

Since 2010, UNICEF has been working with the Burundian Government and civil society organizations in Bubanza and Cibitoke, another heavily war-affected province, to ensure the rights of the most vulnerable children and adolescents in the aftermath of the conflict. So far, the reintegration programme has provided support to 200 children between 5 and 18 years of age, with a focus on orphans and former child soldiers. 

The programme offers a package of interventions that respond to the effects of conflict and address the needs of both the children and their communities.

Enhancing the capacity of local and governmental partners, the programme also supports community-based systems of volunteer referents and social workers to protect child rights. At the same time, income-generating activities help ease the tensions generated by poverty for vulnerable children and their families – especially those returning to communities after time spent away.

Christina Corbett contributed to this story.



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