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Guinea-Bissau: Buba’s story, the shattered dream of becoming a religious chief

© UNICEF/Guinea Bissau/ 2009/Gomes
Buba, from the window of his room in Gabu's Shelter Centre.

Buba’s story is one of thousands dramatic testimonies of children who are trafficked every month from Guinea Bissau to Senegal.

Many of these children will never make it back to their country, and too many of them will carry for ever the scars of their terrible experience.

It is very hot in Gabu, a little town in the East of Guinea Bissau, as it is always the case in this period of the year - the beginning of the rainy season.

Eleven children, just rescued from child trafficking, are patiently waiting under the shadow of an old mango tree, in the back garden of the dilapidated but still beautiful colonial building that hosts the Gabu’s Governor Headquarter.

These young boys are sharing the same uncertainty: will they find their parents? Will their families be willing to take them back? Their experiences are similar: a long travel to Dakar, some time back, often against their will, but always with the expectation to undergo religious education; the crude reality of being forced on the streets, every day, to beg in order to bring back some money to the "Master"; little to eat; nobody to care for them; lots of punishments; nobody to love them.

Today, in Gabu, a ceremony is organized to celebrate the return of these children, and some of them will be reunited with their families.

Eventually, some of the family members arrive. Some people from UNICEF, the Government, IOM, the Suisse Foundation and local NGOs involved in the return of these children are there.

Bubacar - or Buba, as he is usually called by his close friends – is a 14 years old adolescent who has been in Dakar for six years, begging in the streets. The young boy raises himself and starts speaking on behalf of all other children. And starts telling his story.

 In the beginning, it was a nice dream …
"I was only 8 years old when went to Dakar. I went willingly, because my biggest dream was to become a religious chief in Tonia Taba village, where I was born. I was not forced by my father." While he talks about his experience, tears fall on his cheeks, but he continues.

"Yes, I felt very happy when my father told me that I would move to Dakar to study the Holy Koran. I thought that in Dakar I would receive a good Islamic education. I thought that it would be a good thing", he says.

The "Master", he says, had promised Buba’s father that he would look after his son during the stay in Dakar and provide food, health care, and both formal and religious education.

"But one day – he continues - I was accused of stealing some of the money I had collected through begging…. I was beaten up by the Master… In the end, he realized that I had not kept some of the money for myself, but he did not even apologize to me… From that time, things went worst and worst for me."

"…Also, I never studied the Koran in Dakar" declares Buba, "I have never been to a school. I was sick several times, but I was never cared for or sent to a hospital", he adds.

© UNICEF/Guinea Bissau/ 2009/Gomes
Mariama, the woman who looks after Buba in Gabu's Shelter Centre, holds the young boy.

By now Buba cries openly. A deep silence invades the place, while he tries to recompose himself to continue with his story.

"One day, my best friend Alfa burned his left foot while he was boiling water for the Master. His foot became infected, but he never saw a doctor. He almost lost his foot! He used to cry because of the pain he was feeling, but the more he cried, the more he was hit". Buba is pointing his friend, seated beside him.

"Another of my friend, Mohammed, disappeared. We learned later that he had been killed by someone who wanted to steal the money he had collected through begging.  We did not see him again, not even dead," says Buba. "“And we don’t know where he is buried."

"But one day I met Moktar. I will never forget him! He is from Guindis’ Shelter Centre in Dakar, where I stayed with my friends here until we were taken back to Guinea Bissau. He seemed like God talking to me, when I met him: he was kind, he was really nice. He really cared for me and my friends. I will never forget him! He saved us from the Masters."

"I don’t know if my parents are alive or not, - Buba concludes sadly - but I want to go back to my school and rejoin some of my old friends."

Back to family thanks to the Reintegration Project
The testimony of Buba has stirred a lot of emotion among the people attending the ceremony.

"This was the most emotional return I have ever seen since I have been here", said Mariama, one of the women who looks after these children at Gabu’s Shelter Centre, while she holds the adolescent.

"I will follow-up on this child and never give up on him. I know that it will be difficult, as I am based in Gabu and he will return to his village in the Oio region, but I am sure that with UNICEF support I will be able to visit him and his family periodically, to ensure he is well," she completes confidently.

The group of children to which Buba belongs is one of many groups of children returned to Guinea Bissau since the beginning of the Reintegration Project, which was started in 2007 by the NGO AMIC with the support of UNICEF, IOM, the Suisse Foundation and some shelter’s centers in Dakar.

Buba’s story is only one of thousands dramatic testimonies of children who are trafficked every month from Guinea Bissau to Senegal. Many of them will never return to their country. Too many will carry for ever the scars of their terrible experiences.

By Karyna Silva Gomes



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