Published On : Friday, October 14 2016
Beatrice was just 16-years-old when mass protests, violence and murders broke out in Burundi. She had lived in the African country all her life and through the climax of its 12-year ethnic-based civil war, in which she lost both her parents.
She went to stay with her aunt, but when the violence flared-up again – leaving the country on the brink of another civil war - Beatrice was mercilessly kicked out of the family home.
“I have a disability that affects my arm,” she explains. “I couldn’t carry anything or help while the war was happening. My aunt kept calling me useless, neglected me, and eventually told me to leave. I had nowhere to go, so I slept on the streets and roamed the village looking for food.”
It was then that the teenager was gang-raped by soldiers. “They attacked me when I was on the street,” she says, unable to tell me her story in more detail without suffering flashbacks. “It happened several times. But I had nowhere else to go.”
Burundi has struggled with unrest since its independence in 1962. The recent protests were sparked last April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he had been re-elected for a third time, and his opponents claimed it was unconstitutional.
The country is now plagued with violence, as protesters clash with government soldiers and the youth wing of the ruling party: the Imbonerakure. The government claims they are simply a political group, but Burundian refugees talk of them as mass murderers, torturers and rapists.
More than a quarter of a million people have now fled, seeking sanctuary in neighbouring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania – where more than a hundred refugees are arriving each day.
One of them is Beatrice. “When I heard about people moving to Tanzania, I decided to join a group. I needed to leave the violence in Burundi and wanted an easier life. I went with the crowds across the border. It was difficult.”
With the state police reportedly trying to stop Burundians from fleeing, and the Imbonerakure at every corner, crossing the border is no easy feat. Beatrice was forced to hide in the forests for days with no food before managing to enter Tanzania on foot. She was put on a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) bus to the Nduta camp. There, she finally thought she was safe from the risk of physical and sexual violence.
A group of men came out of the woods and started chasing us. We were terrified. We knew if they caught us they would rape us
But when she arrived with hundreds of others, she was mistakenly registered with a family who stole her ration card and left her alone. Again, finding herself abandoned and lost, Beatrice slept outside in open shelters designed for mass arrivals. But they were empty that night, and she was raped again.
“I thought I was safe - but I wasn’t,” she tells me softly. “It happened three times. Once it was just one man but another time it was two together. Life just felt too hard then. I wanted to give up. I didn’t know what to do anymore.”
Her story is traumatic but not unusual. Though there are no official figures, it's estimated that thousands of Burundian girls and women have been raped. Many flee to camps such as Nduta in search of security and safety. But, in a cruel twist of fate, they often find themselves subjected to more sexual violence there.
Beatrice was raped by fellow Burundian refugees. But for many girls, the biggest risk comes from Tanzanians who work in fields next to the camps. Though the refugees aren’t meant to leave the camps, they are permitted to travel within a two-mile-radius to collect firewood. It is there that the danger lies.
“A lot of girls have been raped when they go to fetch firewood,” explains Juliene, a 16-year-old refugee who now works with Plan International as a peer leader, advising other girls her age. “Men – typically Tanzanians in the village – attack them. Now we have to go in a group of more than five to fetch firewood.”
Even that has its risks. “It’s still dangerous - even when you’re in a group,” 17-year-old Lyse tells me. “I was with friends when a group of men came out of the woods and started chasing us. We were terrified. We had to drop the firewood and run for our lives. We knew if they caught us they would rape us.
"They wait for us – sometimes it’s not just Tanzanian men, but Burundians from the camp who pretend they are collecting wood too, but are just there to rape. You just have to run and save yourself.”
The fear of fetching firewood is one that plagues every single teenage girl I meet in the camps. For those who have already suffered sexual violence in Burundi, the terror is all too real. Ineza, 16, refuses to fetch firewood for precisely that reason. “My biggest fear is men because of what they did to me,” she says, with her three-year-old daughter bouncing on her lap.
When she was 13, a group of Hutu soldiers broke into her home. They killed her Tutsi parents with a machete in front of her, and then raped her violently. She was left pregnant.
I never want to get married or have a relationship with a man. My dream is not to have a family
“I wasn’t sure I would survive the birth at the time,” she tells me. “I’m now left with pains down there. I’m very scared of all men. I have bad dreams about them and feel fear all the time. I’m constantly afraid I’ll be raped again. I refuse to be on my own at the camp at night, because I know what can happen to girls.
“I never even want to get married or have a relationship with a man. My dream is not to have a family – I want to become a tailor and support my daughter by earning money.”
For other girls in the camps, not marrying isn't an option. Some have been forced into early marriage by their parents, who cannot afford to feed them and want to move the responsibility elsewhere.
Child marriage is a huge problem here and elsewhere in the developing world - shockingly, a girl aged under 15 is married every seven seconds.
Others are so desperate for food and money that they sell themselves – either into unhappy marriages with older men, or simply for sex.
“These are the biggest problems for girls,” explains 17-year-old Audrey. “The men can use you for sex, then leave you pregnant and disappear. It’s difficult. All we can do is try and get training so we can support ourselves one day.”
Many of the girls are now receiving vocational training through the charity Plan International – learning skills from tailoring to baking bread and soap-making. It's not much when they still face the serious risk of sexual violence and forced marriage, but it is one way they can try and take control back of their lives.
Beatrice is keen to join them. After she was raped in the camps, she went back to the UNHCR base at the border and was sent back to Mtendeli. This time she was registered with Plan and placed under the care of a foster family who are now helping her deal with her physical and mental trauma.
“They told me that everything is fine now and I will live here safe with them,” she says from the tent she now shares with her engineer foster father, his wife and their five children.
“Since I met them, no one has tried to rape me. When I told them my story, they told me: ‘we’ll never leave you alone or let you be raped again’. I feel safe here.”