No justice for child victims of Burundi's sex-traffic rings
17 February 2014, 12:41
Bujumbura - Pamela comes from an affluent family and was doing well in one of Bujumbura's best high schools - until two years ago.
She ended up being a sex slave after meeting a group of girls when she was 14. At first they proposed that she come along when they went out, then the trips out became dates with older men who picked up the bill - initially without asking for anything.
But then she was taken to a house in Kiriri, a smart residential district of Burundi's capital Bujumbura, where she was locked up for three months under the close watch of "people in police uniform", she said.
"When a client came, if you didn't want to go with him they would slap you and whip the soles of your feet," Pamela recounted in a trembling voice. She was freed in a police raid after her mother reported her disappearance.
"Such places exist in every part of town. You just have to open your eyes to see them," said Florence Boivin-Roumestan, who heads the Canadian NGO Justice and Equity - an organisation that has exposed the shocking scale of sex trafficking in the small central African nation.
"After months of investigations we're seeing that human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular exists in Burundi on a scale no one would have imagined," she said.
Victims include both girls from poor rural backgrounds and those brought up in middle-class families in the capital.
In an investigation lasting several months, Justice and Equity found that "young girls are recruited across the country and are either forced into prostitution or sold abroad".
"You find girls of nine or 10, but most of them are in the 13, 14, 15 age range," Boivin-Roumestan said.
The trafficking takes different forms. In Bujumbura, it is girls from well-off families who are targeted in the best schools of the capital. Fellow pupils, both girls and boys, recruited by pimps, play the role of intermediaries.
They gradually gain the confidence of the victims, who eventually end up in brothels.
Keza, who comes from a poor district of Bujumbura, says she was locked up and used as a sex slave by a senior intelligence officer for several months starting from age 15.
"He threatened me and he threatened my parents," said Keza, now 16, adding that she no longer wishes to see her family after the ordeal.
"I filed a formal complaint against him and he received several summons. But he has never shown up. The case has gone nowhere," she told AFP.
Khadija, a 15-year-old Muslim from an even poorer peasant farmer family up-country, is still traumatised by her year-long ordeal in which she was lured to the Gulf.
"Some people came to see my parents and said they had well-paid domestic work for me in Oman," she recounted, staring down at her lap.
"In fact I worked 16 hours a day, every day, I slept on the floor and I was never paid anything," she told AFP.
"Whenever my back was turned they would come up from behind and try to lift up my dress," she recounted, preferring not to give further details.
A good Samaritan took pity on her and arranged for her to leave the family and be flown home, she said, adding: "I came back with just the clothes I had on my back and the plastic slippers I had on my feet."
The three girls have been placed in families who work with Justice and Equity.
Boivin-Roumestan admits it is difficult to say exactly how many children are affected.
In Rumonge, for example, a small lakeside town south of Bujumbura, the study found that out of 50 adult sex workers questioned, half said they were forced into the trade when they were still underage.
President Pierre Nkurunziza has vowed to clamp down on the scourge.
"Things are changing. My budget has been increased, focal points are being set up in every province. Today something is being done," said Christine Sabiyumva, the head of Burundi's juvenile brigade, who says she knew exactly how serious the problem was but that she fought a lonely battle for years because she had no budget and because the top police bosses were simply not interested.
Trafficking networks have been dismantled in several towns and some brothels have been raided and closed down in the past two months.
"Arrests are made every day. We have meetings with ministers, generals, churches, youth groups and lawyers who all want to end this traffic," Boivin-Roumestan said. "But everything needs to be done. It'll take some time to end."
For some of the victims it is too little, too late.
"I'm angry, very angry. I feel like I've been used and tossed away," said Pamela, who does not dare return to her family.
"I want those who are responsible for what happened to me to be punished," she told AFP, although she knows that the man arrested after she was freed has already been released.
Her aim now is to go back to school and later pursue a law degree so that she can "help other girls who suffer what I suffered".