Unreported World, Burundi: Boys Behind Bars

Reporter Ramita Navai and director Wael Dabbous travel to Burundi to investigate the plight of child prisoners.

They reveal how the war-torn country has no juvenile justice system, so teenagers are locked up for years without trial in dangerous adult jails. They face violence and constant sexual abuse. For most, 62-year-old Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa is the only hope. While wrongly imprisoned himself, he found the body of a murdered child inmate, was deeply affected and decided to devote his life fighting for victims of injustice. 

The Times
Children locked in prison ‘hell’ among killers and rapists in Burundi

‘I feel scared in here. I miss my mum and sister,’ says Claude, 13, above, in Mpimba prison


Ramita Navai Bujumbura

May 14 2011

The tightly packed inmates pace endlessly around the main courtyard in Mpimba prison. Burundi’s most notorious jail was built for 800 prisoners but holds 3,300. Sandwiched between the murderers, rapists and dissidents are small, emaciated figures in ragged clothes: groups of boys, huddled together for protection.

Mpimba holds at least 140 child prisoners. There is no juvenile justice system so they are locked up in adult jails alongside some of the most dangerous criminals in the country. The prison is a lawless place. As darkness descends not even the armed guards dare to enter. Bootleg alcohol fuels the aggressive atmosphere and fights are common in the pitch-black, overcrowded cells. Night is the most frightening time for the children.

“I feel scared in here,” Claude, a 13-year-old, whispers. “You always have to be careful. The adults try to trick you into having sex.”

Sexual abuse is rife but the children are too ashamed to report it. The age of criminal responsibility in Burundi is 15 and it is illegal for anyone younger to be imprisoned. But in this small country still recovering from a 12-year civil war, official records and birth certificates are scarce. Many under-age boys end up behind bars.

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