For thousands of homeless children roaming the streets of Burundi, life offers nothing but hunger, crime, danger and abandonment. Now the political conflict raging in the east African country is worsening their already pitiless fate, writes Sinikka Tarvainen.
Bujumbura - The children seem to be everywhere in central Bujumbura - begging in parking bays, hawking plastic bags, walking the streets aimlessly and sleeping on folded cardboard boxes at night.
Many of the minors living on the streets of the Burundian capital appear to be less than 10 years old. Dressed in ragged clothes, often without shoes, they may carry even younger children on their backs.
A 2010 government study put their number at more than 3 000 in three cities alone: Bujumbura - home to an estimated two-thirds of them - Gitega in the centre and Ngozi in the north.
“It is a very difficult life,” Akim Moustafa says quietly.
The shy and earnest boy, who gives his age as 14 but looks much younger, has lived on the streets of Bujumbura for four years.
“My mother died early, and my crippled tailor father is an alcoholic who drinks everything he earns,” he says through an interpreter.
“People call me a bandit, and I have been arrested countless times by policemen who beat me up and took the money that I had earned by begging,” he says.
As the political violence gripping the east African country has displaced more than 230 000 people, sometimes separating children from their parents, aid organisations believe that the number of street children has increased.
Burundi has been in crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April that he would seek a third term in office, despite a constitutional two-term limit. He was re-elected in July 2015.
Protests, attacks and clashes between police and armed groups have left hundreds dead.
The economic slowdown caused by the crisis has reduced street children’s chances of getting food or money by begging, while local organisations helping them say their workers no longer dare go out to feed them at night.
Opposition supporters have taken some of them to boost numbers at anti-government rallies, resulting in harassment from pro-government police, said a social worker who did not want to be named.
“Police come to beat them up at night,” he said.
They say their operations target “criminals” and “terrorists.”
At least 18 children have been killed during the unrest, while more than 100 have been arbitrarily detained, according to the UN children’s fund UNICEF, which did not specify whether they included street children.
Experts attribute the high number of street children in Burundi mainly to the 1993-2005 civil war and to the prevalence of Aids, which have orphaned hundreds of thousands of children.
Burundians have also traditionally placed a high value on large families, and the average woman gives birth to six children.
Urbanisation has meanwhile broken down social structures which ensured that extended families took care of children whose parents were unable to do so.
And such cases are not unusual in one of the world’s poorest countries, officials said.
About 80 percent of Burundi’s 10-million population live on less than 1.25 dollars a day, according to the UN.
“Many of the street children in Bujumbura sleep outside, while others return home for the night,” says Wenceslas Nyabenda from the organisation Giriyuja, which helps them.
Abandoned by adults, the children seek security from each other, forming gangs which “baptise” new members by forcing them to take drugs, to steal, or by raping them, according to Nyabenda.
Many of the children cope with street life by sniffing glue and turning to other forms of substance abuse, which may contribute to them becoming mentally ill, he said.
“They often grow up to become drug dealers, while continuing to use drugs themselves, and die young. They may also join armed groups,” Nyabenda said.
Meanwhile, “entire families are formed on the street, where some of the women give birth,” he added.
“But when street children are given a chance to go to school, they can soar to the top of their class,” said the Giriyuja
representative. He is a former street boy and was rescued by an aid organisation.
However, as Burundi sinks deeper into a spiral of violence, the chances of street children improving their lives are diminishing.
Ignace Ntawembarira, director of the child and family department at the Social Affairs Ministry, said a three-year plan to get half of the children off the streets of Bujumbura has become difficult to implement because of the political crisis.
Many street children, meanwhile, remain fiercely loyal to the parents who have more or less abandoned them, sometimes even supporting their families with their meagre earnings.
“Even if my dad is handicapped, he is still my dad. It is my duty to help him,” Akim Moustafa said.