The sheer number and intensity of conflict and political instability in Africa’s Great Lakes region continues to be an abiding feature for this part of the continent. Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries, is no exception. It is emerging from a 12 year ethnic-based civil war. The scene of one of Africa’s most intractable conflicts Burundi has been characterised by great brutality, crimes against humanity and gross violations of human rights. The population has been left vulnerable by deteriorating social infrastructures, severe drought and a conflict in which over 250,000 lives have been lost. Many of those killed have been women and children.
Since independence in 1961, it has been plagued by tensions between the two main ethnic groups. Burundi is home to some six million people, 85% of whom are Hutus and 14% Tutsis and roughly 1% Twas. Although the groups share a language, religion and kinship system, the legacy of colonial rule has long defined them as separate groups doing much to cement ethnic divide, creating identity categories and social and political polarisation. The colonial advantage of the Tutsis over the Hutus perpetuated ethnic conflict that has defined Burundi’s post-independence political history and created perceptions that are still evident in the current situation.
Despite false starts on the road to peace in the 1990s, a peace agreement, led by former South African president Nelson Mandela, was signed in 2001 that led to the creation of a transitional government. In 2005 Burundians voted in the first parliamentary elections since the start of the civil war. Burundi is now beginning to reap the dividends of a peace process but it does, however, face the formidable task of reviving the shattered economy and of forging national unity and the challenges of poverty and HIV/AIDS.
Security and political progress have been mixed since 2005. In September 2006, the government and the FNL-PALIPEHUTU, the one remaining active rebel movement, signed a cease-fire agreement, but it was not implemented and sporadic fighting has continued. Following armed skirmishes in mid-April 2008, the leadership of the FNL-PALIPEHUTU returned to Bujumbura in early June 2008 to negotiate the implementation of the cease-fire agreement. A breakthrough was made in December 2008, when the government and the FNL-PALIPEHUTU signed a power sharing agreement. In January 2009, major progress in the peace process was made when the rebel group removed of the ethnic connotation of its name – PALIPEHUTU – shortening it to FNL and making the group constitutionally eligible to register as a political party. The demobilization of FNL combatants was completed and the rehabilitation and reintegration is underway. In 2010 the country held its second democratic elections which were carried out in relatively peaceful circumstances.
The legacy of conflict and increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS has increased the number of orphaned and vulnerable children, which has resulted in an increase in the number of street children. Many children and young people have suffered since civil war broke out in 1993. 60 % of Burundian children of school-going age were illiterate while 5,000 others were street children. 7,000 children were child soldiers and that 250,000 were HIV/AIDS orphans. A UNICEF report (2010) on Burundi has estimated that there could be up to 3,000 children living on the streets in the country by the end of 2010. Although we are cautious with statistics, we know that the number of children and young people arriving on the streets of urban areas such as Bujumbura is increasing and the work of organisations like New Generation is becoming more urgent.
The heavy influx of people migrating to urban areas has placed a huge strain on social services most of which are run by NGOs. The Burundian governments, along with international aid organizations, are slowly starting to review long-term, institutionalized care and the importance of children growing up under family based care.