n a dusty field in the Burundian town of Maramvya a young man named Claude watches over the village’s goats. A former lieutenant to Hutu chiefs in the aftermath of a civil war that ended in 2005, he still has the strong build of a fighter. But now he wears tattered pants and women’s sandals with a dirty plastic jewel at the toe: a soldier with none of the power he once commanded.
Claude, now 21, is one of 9,000 former child soldiers, about one quarter of the old Hutu rebel force, who fought against the Tutsis for more than a decade in the Burundian civil war.
When Claude returned to Maramvya he learned that his parents and friends were among the war’s fatalities. He would have to support his younger brothers. Months passed without jobs or aid to the Hutu people still living on the fringe.
Claude began to worry for his family. “When we were in the bush, life was very good because you could make an ambush for cars and steal things,” he says. “Now, I have to struggle so that my small brothers live … there is no hope.”
Thousands of ex-combatants share Claude’s pessimism, and many are violently seeking a return to civil war. Most are following the rebel leader Agathon Rwasa, who abandoned politics during last year’s presidential election campaign and headed for the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Over the last year frequent gun battles have turned parts of Burundi into war zones. Authorities dismiss the attacks as the work of bandits. But observers and some Burundians say the skirmishes are a struggle for power, this time among the Hutu themselves, some of whom have joined the political process.
For Claude and thousands like him, a decision looms that will decide the country’s fate: will they live in peace and poverty, or join rebels who promise them the spoils of war?
Burundi is landlocked and tiny. It borders Rwanda, the DRC and Tanzania, and is one of Africa‘s poorest and most corrupt countries.
Claude was just a child when Tutsi army officers assassinated the country’s first Hutu president in 1993, touching off a civil war that would kill 300,000 people over the next decade and a half.
When several of his friends and family members died, Claude, barely a teenager, decided to take up arms. Within a year, he was promoted from the rank-and-file to sub-officer. The fighters murdered, raped and stole.
The economy buckled. In 1992 GDP per capita was $247; by 2004, a year after a peace agreement ended most of the fighting, it had nearly halved to $128.
By then, the internationally brokered ceasefire and new constitution had upended the entrenched power of the Tutsi elite. Swayed by promises of jobs and money, several thousand Hutu rebels in the Forces for National Liberation (FNL) were integrated into the military.
But Claude was not among them. He struggled to find work. Today thousands of his brothers in arms are poor and angry. They say the peace process failed to deliver jobs or money outlined in informal talks with government.
Karen Christina, 30, was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda, and fought for the FNL for four years. She hoped peace would allow her to return to farming to support her two girls. Instead, she says, “I have had to cope alone.”
The fighters, like other Burundians, expected the economy to rebound. From 2009 to 2011 annual growth averaged 4%, but the poverty level did not drop below 60%. Current GDP per capita is $160 (£102), a fall of more than one-third from pre-war levels.
Eric Niragira, 31, joined a rebel group at 15, and fought for eight years. He now runs a counselling and training programme for about half of the country’s 50,000 former combatants, funded by foreign donors. Niragira says none of these Burundians have joined rebel groups but warns that thousands of the other ex-rebels who lack support may turn to violence.
Now the FNL rebels and other armed groups are attempting to sway experienced and aggrieved former combatants, such as Claude and Christina, to boost their forces. These groups, which are funded by their own loot, other rebel organisations and donations from businesses and opposition politicians, offer recruits an enlistment bonus of 80,000 Burundian francs ($65), about half the average annual wage.
In response to these rebel threats and political opposition, the government has curbed human rights and sentenced more rebels to death without a trial.
UN officials and human rights groups estimate there may have been as many as 100 extrajudicial killings and cases of torture since the 2010 elections returned Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel, to power. They say security forces target members of the FNL, other rebels, and independent political activists.
As the government grows more repressive, it risks lending new credibility to the rebels and inflaming the conflict, says Willy Nindorera, of the International Crisis Group. “It’s not going to be very difficult for the rebels to attract young people to fight. There are many people dispirited.”
Alexis Sinduhije, a journalist who fled Burundi in August 2010, after arrests and death threats related to his political campaigning around the elections, says Burundi is about to erupt.
Rebels “are trying to send a signal to the government that they can’t have government by a dictatorship. We even have some Tutsi going to visit Hutu in the FNL and fight with them, because they [Tutsi] don’t know what to do,” he says.
One EU official says the power struggle seems intractable because political parties are consumed by their fight for positions or money.
“This is why there is no political dialogue … and such a tense political situation doesn’t seem to have any short-term solution,” he said.
The US ambassador, Pamela Slutz, is concerned that Burundi’s porous borders, rampant arms smuggling and corrupt and ill-equipped police leave the country vulnerable to terrorism. The Somalia-based al-Shabaab network has threatened Burundi because it contributes troops to the African Union’s efforts to stabilise Somalia.
For all of the foreign interest, Burundi’s fate rests on a choice being weighed by a small number of its people.
Claude and Christina say they have not decided whether to join the rebels. But for Claude, fighting has a simple and undeniable appeal. “In the bush,” he says, “we are leading a good life, because we have the means to feed ourselves.”
Duncan Wilson, The Guardian