Former Burundi street child helps heal civil war divisions

Dieudonne Nahimana founded a charity trying to break the cycle of retribution among children orphaned by Burundi's civil war. To foster reconciliation, the charity also works with children whose parents were the killers.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Boys walk behind patrolling soldiers in Bujumbura, Burundi, in May 2015.

In northern Burundi 90 young people are harvesting their first crops – beans, maize and potatoes – but this is no ordinary smallholding.

The farmers come from both sides of the country's ethnically charged civil war; some were orphaned by the conflict, while others are the children of those who were the killers.

"They share what is grown as an example of reconciliation. We call it redeeming the land because there was so much bloodshed," said Dieudonne Nahimana, founder of the charity New Generation which runs the project.

"The young people come together to talk about what happened, why it happened and how we can stop it happening in the future."

Forty percent of the farmers at the project in Gasorwe in Muyinga province are Hutu, 40 percent Tutsi and 20 percent Batwa pygmies, Burundi's most marginalized people.

At least 300,000 people died in the 1993-2005 conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in the central African nation, now gripped by fresh turmoil.

Nahimana, who grew up in Muyinga, lost his father and 18 other relatives in the war. For several years he felt angry and then he sat down with his father's killers and publicly forgave them.

His charity now encourages others to do likewise through its reconciliation work.

Two thirds of Burundi's population is under 25, with many reaching an age where they may be tempted to take revenge for past atrocities against their families.

But Nahimana wants to train a new generation of leaders who can break the cycle of retribution.

The latest unrest was sparked in 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza said he would seek a third term – a move opponents said violated the constitution.

Hundreds have been killed and almost 400,000 have fled to nearby countries.

Nahimana started his charity during the civil war to help street children orphaned by the killings.

He was a teenager at boarding school when his father, a retired judge, was murdered at the start of the conflict. Unable to return home, he ended up on the streets of the capital Bujumbura.

"There were so many, many young children on the streets. Some were three, four or five years old. I tried to find food for them from hotels and broken bread from bakeries," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In 2000, a businessman acquaintance invited Nahimana to look after his home in his absence. Nahimana asked if he could bring 30 street children with him, and New Generation was born. He has since opened another branch in neighboring Rwanda.

Some of the first children he helped are now young adults heading towards bright futures, he says.

Vianey, rescued at four years old, captained Burundi's team in the 2014 Street Child World Cup in Brazil and will soon start university, hoping to become a journalist.

Innocent, rescued at five, was the top goal scorer in the World Cup contest and won two gold medals in last year's Olympic-inspired Street Child Games in Brazil. He is now head of the charity's team helping children on the street.

Nahimana says New Generation has helped 600 street children access food, shelter, education and medical care while thousands of others have participated in its reconciliation and leadership programs.

"Revenge is not a solution. I tell them we need a new generation of leaders who positively want to impact the future of the country – and that is you," he said. "There's no benefit in taking revenge because that creates a cycle of violence."

Nahimana says there are thousands of street children in Burundi and the number has increased since the latest troubles. Some are as young as two. Many sleep in cardboard boxes.

"Kids are at risk of dying on the streets. We sometimes have to bury children," said Nahimana.

Some of the children have been orphaned by violence or AIDS. Others are the unwanted children of girls who have been raped. Some are sent out to beg by parents too poor to support them.

The children are at risk of becoming involved in the fighting, crime or drugs. Girls as young as 12 can end up in prostitution or domestic slavery.

"Many of the children don't even have names – just nicknames. They don't know where they were born, they don't know their parents," Nahimana said.

"Imagine being in a country where you're not a citizen, you have no identity, no right to go to school because you have no papers."

He says those who join the rebellion often do so as a way of finding an identity.

New Generation has launched a campaign to ensure children can obtain identity papers which will help them access schooling and work.

Nahimana believes street children have the potential to make great leaders.

"On the streets children don't care what tribe you're from," Nahimana said. "They create a community which is much stronger. They have a strength of character other kids don't have.

"They also understand that they are the result of injustice and that they cannot create that injustice for others."

Editing by Ros Russell. This story originally appeared on the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption, and climate change. Visit

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