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BURUNDI: Demobilisation of child soldiers beginsBujumbura, 26 January 2004 (IRIN) - Some 24 child soldiers were demobilised on Friday at a cantonment site in Muyange, 30 km northwest of the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, marking the official launch of the country's National Structure for the Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration and Prevention of Child Soldiers.
The children had been recruited into the Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie-Forces de defense de la democratie (CNDD-FDD) rebel faction led by Jean Bosco Ndayikengurukiye. They were at the cantonment site together with 191 former combatants loyal to Ndayikengurukiye and to Alain Mugabarabona, leader of a smaller faction of the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL).
Officials of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and those from the national demobilisation project attended the ceremony. UNICEF Representative Catherine Mbengué said the agency would follow up on the demobilised children to ensure that they do not rejoin armed groups. She said that UNICEF would work with human rights organisations in an overseeing capacity.
"We will support the government and all activities by human rights organisations to ensure an adequate follow-up of these demobilised children," she said. "This will guarantee their reintegration and a better future, and will enable them to contribute actively, as citizens, to the reconstruction of the country and the return to peace."
She urged the demobilised children to participate actively in their reintegration into society and to contribute to the prevention of recruitment by sensitising other children.
"You are the right people to tell your story to your communities, to your friends who stayed in the villages," she told the children.
But one of the demobilised children told IRIN that he might return to war. "I went to the bush when I was 10 years old, just after my fourth year in primary school, I think the government and other partners of this demobilisation project should give us the necessary assistance, otherwise I will return to armed groups," said the 17-year-old, who requested anonymity.
The head of the national demobilisation project, Desirée Gatoto, reassured the demobilised children that they, as well as their families, would get the required aid.
"The demobilised children will be monitored by our different structures in their communities," she said. "We have structures in place to analyse the situation of their families, to know which kind of assistance we will bring to the child, who would like to go to school, who would like to undergo vocational training; this work will continue with all partners in the reintegration of child soldiers."
This assistance will continue up to 18 months after demobilisation, she said. Each family would receive 20,000 Burundian francs (US $20) every month, and when the general demobilisation programme begins, the child soldiers' project would be integrated into the demobilisation and reintegration of all former combatants, she added.
With Friday's event, Ndayikengurukiye's faction became the first to demobilise child soldiers. The movement's officials appealed to other rebel groups to do likewise.
In a statement issued on Friday, UNICEF said the demobilisation was seen as the beginning of a larger process targeting all of Burundi’s estimated 6,000 to 7,000 child soldiers.
UNICEF reported that the first step towards demobilisation in Burundi was taken in October 2001, when UNICEF and the government concluded a memorandum of understanding.
"Since then, UNICEF sensitised senior commanding officers from the army, developed operational tools, conducted studies and evaluations and supported the national structure to be put in place," UNICEF reported.
It said the structure, which facilitated the demobilisation on Friday, was composed of four ministries and the minor wings of FNL and FDD.
UNICEF said it continued to advocate the demobilisation of children in the ranks of the two major rebel groups.
It said it had identified and trained partners that cover Burundi’s 17 provinces for their support in the reintegration of demobilised child soldiers into their families and communities.