The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says more than 200 child soldiers held by rebels have been demobilized following seven months of negotiations. UNICEF says the children, including one girl, were being held by a dissident group that broke with the rebel National Liberation Front. The FNL is still fighting a civil war with the Burundian government. Lisa Schlein reports from Geneva.
The United Nations Children's Fund says 232 children between the ages of 15 and 20 had been held at the Randa and Burumata camps north of the Burundian capital, Bujumbura.
In a telephone interview from Bujumbura, UNICEF representative, Francoise Grullos, told VOA many of the children were as young as 10 when they were recruited by the FNL.
She says the camps in which the former child soldiers were staying were in very poor condition and UNICEF considered it a matter of urgency to get the children released.
"We had some concerns that these children in these two camps were in areas where the army and the FNL were still fighting and we feared about the security of these child soldiers in the camps," she said. "So, it was an additional element. And, I have to say that the government and the Commission, in particular, have been very instrumental in making sure that the dissidents agreed to release the children."
The government established a Commission in 2004 to oversee the demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers into civil society. Since then, Grullos says, more than 3,000 former child soldiers have been returned to their communities with a 94 percent success rate of reintegrating into society.
She says negotiating the release of these children has been a very long, difficult, but, ultimately successful process.
"You can imagine the happiness in the office here. We were very, very happy," she added. "It is like bringing children back to their childhood. It is releasing them from a camp where conditions are very bad and getting them back to a normal life."
But, Grullos freely admits it is very difficult to get the children back to a normal life. She says the teenagers are suffering from a variety of illnesses, including malaria and skin diseases. She says many are severely traumatized by their brutalizing experiences and will require psychosocial counseling.
Grullos says the children have been taken to the town of Gitega, east of Bujumbura, where the process to reunite them with their families would begin. She says it takes about 18 months to reintegrate them into their communities. Although the process is long, she says it has been generally successful.
UNICEF says there are still an estimated 1,000 child soldiers in Burundi and more continue to be recruited by rival armed factions.