This is Aria’s story.
Aria is a young woman living with her husband and child outside Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. She lives a peaceful, yet humble life, overcoming the challenges of the country´s poverty by selling small piles of fruit to provide for her and her family. But her past was not so peaceful. She was a child soldier with the Burundian rebel group Front National de Liberté, the FNL, during the civil war that tore the country apart for over a decade. I met with her so that she could tell her story.
We spoke together with my translator, Audrey, who was one of few people I met who could speak both Kirundi and English. The three of us met in Kinama´s community centre, a worn-down brick building on the outskirts of Bujumbura. We sat in an intimate circle, Aria to my left and Audrey to my right. Between us was an old wooden table holding my tape recorder, interview guide, and notebook.
While listening to Aria tell her story, I was reminded about the image I had about child soldiers before arriving to Burundi. It was the image that is often seen in the media of a young black boy with an AK47 almost as big as the boy him self, with a fierce and fearless look in his eyes. Aria did not match this image. She was sitting in front of me with her colourful wrap-around skirt and her worn down t-shirt. A piece of clothing was bundled around her head, tucking away her curly black hair. Her white t-shirt has traces of the dark, red Burundian soil on it. She came across as neither fierce nor fearless, but rather as a shy, timid, and humble young woman. She was open and honest when recounting her story.
At twelve in her third year in primary school, Aria was kidnapped together with her cousin when the rebels came to her village. “They killed my father and took me and my cousin.” For three years she and her cousin were held by the rebels, living under constant fear for their lives and with frequent threats of violence and sexual abuse. The FNL was everywhere. Rebel groups of different sizes, and with members of all ages, were recruiting people and children across the country. Most of the members of the group that Aria and her cousin belonged to had been abducted just like them. They were between 10 and 40-years old, 17 of them females between 12 and 20. Aria recalls how five of the girls were less than 18. One lost her life. Aria was the youngest.
“We weren’t even treated like humans. I would prefer to die than to go back there”. In her group the members were set do tasks for the leaders. During the day the boys would seek for food and cook. Aria and her cousin, together with the rest of the girls, would wash dishes or carry food and water. “During the night we had to carry heavy guns and run with them. We were forced to do things that my young body wasn’t really able to do.”
The oldest members of the group would often force and pressure the youngest ones to do their tasks for them. “I was terrified,” Aria said. She was living with the same people who had killed her father. She had no choice but to do as they said. The heavy loads she was forced to carry have injured bones and joints. She is still in pain.
After three years with the rebels, Aria and her cousin decided to escape and came up with a plan. “We had a meeting, we decided that if we would stay they would kill us, if we would run they would kill us.” They pretended to go out of the camp to look for water. None of the other members of the group suspected their plan. They walked for hours to get back home. Hours became days and after two whole days they finally arrived back to their old village. They arrived to find only empty houses. People had escaped during the war and many had moved to the city. Their home community was completely abandoned. “When we went back home and didn´t find anyone, we thought we were orphans. Starting from nothing, and alone was really hard for us.”
The two cousins decided to stay with the hope that they would soon be reunited with family and friends. After awhile, to Aria and her cousin´s joy, people did start to come back to the villages. But the happiness that Aria and her cousin felt when seeing familiar faces was not reciprocated. Many of the community members were skeptical toward them. Aria explains how people would often choose not to pass her on the street and would walk around her to avoid talking to her. Children told her her that their families would talk about her and her cousin. They would say that they had been “the women of all the men” in the rebel group. “I was glad to be back home,” Aria said, “and I tried to be accepted, but people were afraid; they didn’t respond when we greeted them.”
A whole year after escaping from the rebel movement, a rumor about the girls’ whereabouts reached Aria’s mother and siblings. They had also moved to the city, escaping the rebel attacks and the war. When they heard that the girls had returned, they sent for them.
Aria and her cousin were finally reunited with their family and moved to the city to be with them. In the city things became easier. People did not know her, nor did they know her past. And Aria kept quiet. She managed to escape not only the rebels, but now also the stigmatization experienced in her home community. Her cousin remained in their village and Aria still returns once in a while to check on the land of her family. Things are better now.
Today only her family and husband know about Aria’s past. She has managed to keep her past to herself, and she hopes to forever keep it this way.