Burundi’s Catch-22: Retribution at Home and Disease over the Border

Aislinn Laing, Telegraph, May 23, 2015

When Jean-Pierre heard rumours in his village about an offensive against those who did not support Burundi’s president, he did not need to be told twice to leave.

An orphan whose parents were murdered during the country’s long civil war, he knew only too well that when punishment came it would be swift and harsh.

The 24-year-old, whose full name The Telegraph has withheld for his safety, did not have far to travel to reach the Kagunga beach, just over the border with Tanzania, where he spent several days sleeping rough with tens of thousands of other refugees, waiting for a boat to take him south to a more established camp.

But the conditions were so terrible at Kagunga–where on Friday, the UN confirmed a serious outbreak of cholera–that he decided to return to Burundi instead.

“People have nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, no food, no way to cook and no clothes to wear,” he said, eyeing the rope and dusty patch of no-man’s land that constitutes the frontier between the two countries, the soldiers who guard it lazily fingering their rifles in the shade of an avocado tree.

“You have to go with nothing or the soldiers know you are a refugee and they don’t let you go. I have come back for now but I’m ready to run again any time, even the middle of the night.”

Burundian refugees.

Burundian refugees.

Three weeks ago, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza sidestepped the constitution to run for a third term in office, prompting protests, an abortive military coup and an uptick in harassment of those thought to oppose the bid. Jean-Pierre and his seven siblings are among many who are torn between risking political violence at home or destitution and disease over the borders.

By the end of this week, a total of 111,000 desperate Burundians had opted for the latter, fleeing to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Aid agencies report scores of children arriving alone at refugee campssince the crisis began three weeks ago, having been separated from their parents in the rush to leave. In north-western Cibitoke Province, three people drowned trying to cross the Rusizi River to Congo.

An estimated 60,000 people are trapped on Kagunga beach, a narrow strip of sooty sand and a collection of mud brick houses hemmed in by vertiginous cliffs and the lapping waters of Lake Tanganyika, a vast inland sea.

Many know Tanzania’s refugee camps only too well, having fled there during the previous civil war and finally returned home as part of a charity-brokered repatriation just three years ago. With no proper sanitation or water supply, the refugees rely on the lake or a muddy stream for their ablutions, meaning cholera is spreading like wildfire.

Thirty one people have died already and aid workers are reporting as many as 400 new cases each day. The sole doctor is overwhelmed by a growing stream of mostly children arriving at her tent with cases of vomiting and diarrhoea.

The only routes of escape are a perilous eight-hour hike up the cliffs and through jungle to another village, or to a refugee camp further south on the MV Liemba, a former German battleship which defended the lake from the allies during the First World War. It was sunk but later salvaged to act as its sole passenger ferry.

Each morning refugees crowd the water’s edge in the hope of getting on fishing boats to take them out to the waiting ship, which makes one journey with 600 people a day. With the numbers of refugees expected to double in the next six months, the ancient liner is losing the race to evacuate its desperate cargo. Since gravely ill children are given the highest priority to leave, it often arrives in Kigoma port with tiny bodies for burial.

“The situation is really alarming,” said Amah Klutse, from Unicef, the UN children’s’ agency. “We have a large concentration of mainly women and children living in critical conditions. They cannot stay here but we cannot move them to safety fast enough.”

Those arriving at Kagunga seem to do so with one word on their lips when asked the reason for their departure: Imbonerakure.

The nickname in the local Kirundi language for the ruling party youth militia, meaning “those who see far”, Imbonerakure has become a byword for the pervasive fear that has resurfaced across a country still traumatised by the 12 year-long civil war. The movement was created as a home for young rebel soldiers demobilised after that war, which ended in 2005 with the signing of the Arusha peace accord and the election of former Hutu rebel leader Mr Nkurunziza.

But today, they are the subject of near claims of intimidation, harassment and violence towards those seen as opposing the president. Youths purported to be Imbonerakure, wearing party T-shirts and baseball caps with rifles slung over their shoulders, man roadblocks and operate armed patrols with the tacit approval of police, threatening people with beatings or worse.

“Very often it is just the threat of violence or rumours prompting people to leave,” said Tom Monboe, the UN High Commission for Refugees’ regional director. “People don’t want to get caught up in it again. They want to get their children away before something breaks out.”

Speaking to The Telegraph in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura this week, Denis Karera, the Imbonerakure president, denounced as “lies” reports of his members patrolling with weapons, and said they were unfairly maligned by rival politicians. In Kagunga however, his comments were met with derision.

Celeste (not her real name), a widow who arrived with her two young sons, said she was threatened directly by a man she named and identified as an Imbonerakure. “They wear long coats so you can’t see if they have a weapon and patrol around,” she said. “They tell you they will ‘wash’ you, which means to kill. It’s not rumours. It’s real.”

Having been reinstalled in State House this week, Mr Nkurunziza announced a cabinet reshuffle to shore up his support base, played a restorative game of football with his aides in a match broadcast on national television, then issued a list of instructions to his countrymen about how they should behave.

“Burundian refugees must return because peace and stability reigns throughout the country,” he said.

His business-as-usual approach failed to dampen protests, however. On Thursday, police launched one of their heaviest pushes to end them, shooting dead two demonstrators and wounding eight more.

Demonstrators and police

The United States, the European Union and the UN have made plain their dismay at Mr Nkurunziza’s plan to extend his constitutional term but regionally, while condemnation of the coup was swift, condemnation of his bid for a third term has been almost non-existent. This is not surprising, analysts have said, when leaders of several of Burundi’s neighbours are reaching the end of their second terms and might also bid for a third.

Congo-Brazzaville leader Dennis Sassou-Nguesso is expected to seek a third term, Joseph Kabila of the DRC has already sought advice on tweaking the constitution to run again, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda has angrily rejected Western warnings not to follow suit ahead of polls in 2017.

Alex Vines, head of Chatham House’s Africa programme, said behind closed doors, Mr Nkurunziza’s neighbours were less supportive. Although seeking their own term extensions, they see him as a different case, and are concerned that a Burundi destabilised by popular protest could be harmful to the region. “Museveni sees himself as popularly supported to continue to rule and that’s clearly the case with Kagame,” he said. “In Burundi’s case the politics is much more fragmented and his support base weaker.”

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