By age 15, Annonciata Nduwimana was an accomplished fighter for Burundi’s opposition Forces nationales de liberation (FNL) and knew how to kill in battle.
“My father was killed, accused of sheltering rebels. We [her mother and two elder brothers] then fled to Bujumbura to seek safe haven,” she said.
Life in the capital, however, proved tough for a widow with three children. Unable to pay rent, the family returned to their village of Muyira in Bujumbura Rurale Province.
The area was an FNL stronghold. “The army was convinced that we pretended to be school pupils by day but turned into FNL fighters during the night,” Nduwimana said. “I knew by staying here, I would be killed. I chose to die on the battlefield.”
That was 2003. Two weeks after joining the FNL, she had completed basic training and was deployed on the battlefield.
“I was afraid, I couldn’t figure out I could kill people,” she said. “But there was no way out – you either killed or you were killed. The choice was clear.”
Now 21, Nduwimana is back to civilian life in Muyira, but with little to show for her time as a combatant. She is traumatized, has not been fully accepted by society and lacks capital to start an income-generating activity.
Like Nduwimana, many women in the province were forced into war. Others who stayed in the villages ended up performing chores either for the army or the FNL.
While some took food to combatants, others fetched water or firewood, or sheltered the fighters in their houses.
“We used to leave home [carrying food] at around 8pm in the night and walk and walk; we arrived at their [FNL] hiding places at dawn,” Annabelle Nshimirimana, 20, said.
“The next night we walked back home, taking care nobody observed our absence,” she added. “It was a difficult task because it was a long way through the mountains. Sometimes we were ambushed and forced to fight.”
Nshimirimana’s neighbour, Odile Nibizi, 34, remembered one night when FNL fighters knocked at her door, asking for shelter. Although she did not know any of them, the men stayed at her home for a whole year.
“I was providing them [with] everything; this cost me my beer business because I ended up with nothing at all,” the mother of six said. “We were caught between two fires: If we sheltered the FNL, the army targeted us; if you refused, you were also killed,”
The three are among thousands of women in Burundi who are trying to pick up the pieces after the FNL gave up their military struggle and became a political party in April 2009.
With Burundi now largely calm, female ex-combatants like Nduwimana, Nshimirimana and Nibizi are trying to integrate back into civilian life.
However, it is a difficult journey for most of them as they struggle on their own to heal their wounds, get over the trauma of being an ex-combatant, fight stereotypes and get accepted in a society not accustomed to female ex-combatants.
“They [neighbours] call me names. When they see me passing, they say, ‘look, she was a solider’; they still believe I am a bandit; all cases of banditry are blamed on us,” Nduwimana said.
Another ex-combatant, who declined to be named, said ex-combatants who were impregnated by other combatants were worse off, and they were shunned by the society.
“They tell us to take the children to their fathers, but how can we?” she said.
Many women are struggling to make ends meet.
“I got 4,500 francs [US$3.6 – as a demobilization fee] and I used it as a capital; I sell cooking oil. Up to now I have only three litres. I can get soap and food,” said Nshimirimana, who was forced to leave school at an early age.
With no parents, her five brothers and sisters are taken care of by relatives at Rumonge in the southern province of Bururi.
Glimpse of hope
But all is not lost. The aid organization CARE International has initiated a project aimed at the social and economic integration of female ex-combatants.
Remy Ndayiragije, head of the project known as “Dushigikirane” (“Let us help each other” in Kirundi), said the aim was economic empowerment of female ex-combatants, and their social integration.
Ndayiragije said CARE was working with the UN World Food Programme, Survival Corps and the International Rice Institute. Among other activities, the project is trying to introduce new varieties of rice in Bujumbura Rural.
It is also setting up a savings and loan scheme, and awareness is being raised among women of the importance of working in associations. Many have now formed solidarity groups that aim to save money weekly, with a view to offering loans to members.
“We also want to bring together, with the ex-combatants, women who did not get involved in the fighting,” Ndayiragije said. “When they are working together, they talk about their past experience; they can understand each other. Those who have had not been accepted in the community can get a listening ear in the group.”