It is a warm Tuesday morning in Bujumbura, Burundi. The sun is shining and birds are chirping. On my way to work, I am called by our Child Protection Specialist, who has just had news that a one-year-old baby has died in grenade fire in the eastern province of Ruyigi. A few hours later, the news is confirmed. The baby becomes the youngest victim of the conflict so far. The sun continues to shine, but the day has dramatically darkened. Again.
For the past seven months, this tiny country in the heart of Africa, with its lush, rolling hills and long stretches of lakeshore lined with palm trees, has become a theatre of violence and unrest. And children are fast becoming the first victims of the violence. Seventeen children have been killed and many more wounded, most of them by gunfire.
Many others have been exposed to violence, simply just because they are near their homes, in their neighbourhoods where violence is occurring. UNICEF knows from experience what all means for their psychological development and wellbeing.
The children I talk to are all overwhelmed by what they are seeing. “At school I often am disturbed with thoughts,” Jérémie, 11, tells me. He speaks softly and looks down at his hands. “And I have a lot of nightmares. I often dream about raids. I see rifles and I try to flee but I can’t move. I have them almost every night. I pray with my grandparents before I go sleep so that I don’t have nightmares.”
“The children can’t concentrate anymore,” says a school principal in the Buterere neighbourhood of Bujumbura. As we chat, we hear gunshots in the distance. “They don’t even pick up their books anymore.”
Jérémie now attends a ChildFriendly Space supported by UNICEF in his neighbourhood, one of 28 spaces that are now operational in the capital city to bring muchneeded psychosocial support and recreational activities to vulnerable children. These centres act as havens for children: centres where children can rest, play games, do sports and talk with psychologists and social workers. Children that show evident signs of trauma are also encouraged to do drawing as a way of processing what they have been experiencing.
“One of the major challenges among these children is nightmares,” explains Karim, a psychologist in one of the ChildFriendly Spaces. “Nightmares about fleeing, nightmares about being persecuted. Another sign is children keeping to themselves, isolating themselves from others.”
The psychologists deployed to these centres are also pursuing child-to-child counselling as a way for children to help other children.
“We’re setting up talking groups between children who have similar problems,” explains Etienne, another psychologist. “We bring up a subject, for example nightmares, and then the children discuss how they manage to overcome their fear. Some children have better coping mechanisms than others: when faced with problems, they find solutions, whereas others run away from problems. Those children can learn from the other children.”
Beyond the need for healing due to close proximity to violence, other consequences of the crisis are also becoming apparent. Over just a few short months, the prices of basic food items has shot up, and families are finding it even harder to feed their children. This is alarming in a country which is already one of the world’s poorest, and which already has one of the highest chronic malnutrition rates worldwide.
Children make up half of Burundi’s population and they have enormous potential for building peace. A continued commitment to them is essential to overcoming cycles of violence and finally building sustainable peace here.
We are now at a critical moment. Now is not the time to give up on the children of Burundi.
Eliane Luthi is a Communication Specialist in the Communication and Participation Section, Burundi Country Office