It may not sound like a reward, being a soldier chosen to fight as a peacekeeper in war-torn Somalia or Central African Republic. But for soldiers from one of the poorest countries in the world, Burundi, it's seen as an opportunity of a lifetime. Soldiers angle to wear the blue helmet — and to pull an international salary and other benefits, covered by the United Nations.

But just how far will soldiers go to obtain a peacekeeping post? Some may be going to troubling extremes. The U.N. has ordered three Burundian peacekeepers posted in the Central African Republic to return to Burundi for human rights abuses committed in their home country. It's lifted the lid on a disturbing incentive system that begins with how coveted these postings are.

Yolande Bouka is a researcher for the Institute for Security Studies based in South Africa. She says U.N. peacekeepers earn at least 10 times the salary they would make as soldiers at home in Burundi. "Even more important for some of the soldiers is the premium they get should they die in action," she says. "These international missions provide a very generous package for the family that's left behind."

But to win these posts, a soldier has to pledge loyalty to Burundi's government, which has used its security forces to torture and kill members of the political opposition. The crisis began in April when the president ran for a third term in office that critics said was unconstitutional. Since then, hundreds have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled, and there are fears that the violence is awakening buried ethnic divisions.

Bouka says the military is ethnically mixed and has shown signs of splitting apart. There's even been a failed coup. But the military has nevertheless cohered behind the president. In a country with massive unemployment, Bouka says, soldiers don't want to jeopardize the chance at a foreign posting that could set up their family for life. "There have been some in the military who believe that if they engage in violence — violently suppress opposition or the rebellion — they will be able to reap the reward of their allegiance by being sent abroad," she says.

The decision by the U.N. to repatriate the three soldiers has already rippled across the ranks of the more than 5,000 Burundian peacekeepers deployed in African hotspots. One of those soldiers spoke without attribution to NPR, because he didn't have official permission to speak. He wrote by email that the dismissals had sent a message: "[T]hose who kill to please the power expecting a mission as reward will reduce the pace."

The U.N. has warned Burundi's government that the organization will continue to vet soldiers on peacekeeping missions as reports emerge of atrocities in Burundi.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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