Sandra Laville

Discontent grows among the 3,000 child soldiers demobilised from rebel armies

DESIRE SABIYUMVA has been given a new identity. It is written on a laminated card that he shows proudly to anyone who cares to ask. After six years as an anonymous child soldier in one of the harshest conflicts in Africa, Desire officially became a demobilised enfant soldat four months ago - one of 3,000 children and young men whose future is no longer tied to the rebel armies of Burundi.

With an uneasy peace settling on the tiny central African country after 12 years of civil war, the wrenching of Desire from the ranks of an armed group is regarded as a success story by the new Burundian Government and the United Nations children's fund UNICEF.

In 18 months UNICEF and the Government, supported by the World Bank, have overseen the demobilisation of 3,000 enfants soldats - many of whom were engaged in war from the age of seven.

But Desire and his friends do not feel successful. Each day they gather to hustle for a little food and money a few miles outside the capital, Bujumbura, at a ramshackle shed that is pockmarked with bullet holes. They were all members of CNDD-FDD, the rebel group led by Pierre Nkurunziza, the man who three months ago became the first democratically elected president of Burundi in 10 years. But while President Nkurunziza now lives in an official residence and is driven around the capital in a limousine, the young men who were taken from their families and schools as children to fight for him feel overlooked and abandoned.

Under a deal worked out by the international community and the Burundian Government, enfants soldats were to receive $1 a day for 18 months following disbandment. But former child soldiers have recently staged protests against the authorities' failure to pay the allowances. The discontentment is raising fears that Burundi's hard-fought peace could be threatened as evidence grows that rebel groups are targeting the young malcontents.

Herman Ndayisaba, a clinical psychologist at the Transcultural Psycho-Social Organisation, which works with disbanded child combatants, said there was evidence that the Front for National Liberation, the main rebel group that remains outside the new government, is recruiting child soldiers again in a campaign of increasing violence.

A UNICEF spokeswoman admitted that disbanding traumatised, hardened soldiers after years of conflict was "not an easy business" but much had been achieved in the last 18 months.

"Eighteen months is a very short time and it is a slow process to detoxify their minds after the traumatic experiences they have been through," she said.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005