Burundi refugees pour into Tanzania

2015-11-25 17:57
Carrying their prized possessions, scores of people fled Burundi’s capital before a looming security crackdown. (AP Photo)

Carrying their prized possessions, scores of people fled Burundi’s capital before a looming security crackdown. (AP Photo)

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Kasulu - At the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp on Tanzania's western border, a young man stands apart from the crowd of people pushing against the bent gate, clamouring for their monthly ration of two bars of soap and a mosquito net.

Abdul Karim is one of more than 110 000 Burundian refugees who have fled to the neighbouring country since April. Unfazed by the commotion at the distribution centre, the 26-year-old casually jokes that he can do without soap. He can cope with the conditions at the camp, he explains, because he has survived worse.

For two weeks, Karim walked through forests in Burundi to escape a detention centre in the capital Bujumbura. He had been arrested for being a member of the military faction led by Major General Godefroid Niyombare which tried to overthrow Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza in May.

Clashes between police and opposition supporters stemming from Nkurunziza's attempt to remain as president for a third term have resulted in the deaths of at least 200 people since April.


RELATED: Burundi officials and coup plotters sanctioned by US


"When I came here I was half-dead and I'm just lucky to be alive, I don't worry about the bad conditions here," says Karim.

"Along with three others, I was arrested by the documentacion [secret police] and for three days they tortured me, poking me with hot, sharp iron rods in my back and legs so I would tell them where Niyombare was, but I had no idea," he says.

Karim told Al Jazeera that while he is no longer affiliated with anti-government forces, he constantly worries about his safety in the camp.

"I don't know how long I can stay here, I'm always threatened here and I don't feel safe, but I know I can never, ever go back to Burundi," he says.

A life of displacement

Another refugee, Cypriel Ntihirageza is also unsure whether he will be able to return home. The 75-year-old farmer fears going back, but like many others at the camp, he complains that the provisions in Nyuragusu, which is now the world's third largest refugee camp, are inadequate to meet the basic needs of its inhabitants.

Thrice displaced by turbulence in Burundi, Ntihirageza has lived as a refugee for close to 30 years. He was first displaced to the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 1972 Burundi "genocide", when a Tutsi-led army massacred 80,000 Hutus, including his father and older brothers.

After living in exile for more than two decades, Ntihirageza returned to Burundi in 1993, but another civil war began that year, prompting him to flee back to the DRC. An estimated 300,000 were killed in the ethnic conflict that pitted Hutus against the Tutsi minority during this conflict.

Ntihirageza was repatriated to Burundi in 2000, but in June 2015, he fled again when the latest unrest spread to Minago, a small rural town 50km south-west of the capital, where he lived.

Sitting on a muddy patio close to the distribution desks, Ntihirageza is informed that his third request for soap has been denied without further explanation. Disappointed, he picks up his walking stick and contemplates the long walk back to his tent, where he has little food or medication for his leg hernia.

"I'm all alone and as a disabled person I don't get much support with cooking and I've not received food for three days now," he says.

"When I came I was only given a sleeping mat and a blanket, but I have a hernia and other problems so I really need a mattress."

Risk of cholera

The country representative of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, Joyce Mends-Cole, recently visited the camp. She said the humanitarian agency was struggling with the numbers, but managing to cope.

The number of refugees flooding to Tanzania has prompted the re-opening of two more camps, Nduta and Mtendeli. Yet, the UNHCR like other agencies, has warned that a further increase in arrivals - who each day number in the hundreds - and increasing heavy rains would create challenges and raise the risk of a cholera outbreak. The last outbreak in May killed 33 refugees in western Tanzania.

Among those hoping to escape the potentially hazardous downpours is Frida Haviyarimana, a 43-year-old rice farmer and local leader. She escaped from Nyanza-Lac, a southern town on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, after her father and brother were shot dead, allegedly by pro-government fighters.

Because of a mix-up at the distribution centre, her food rations have been allocated to Nduta camp, so Haviyarimana and her family of 14 have been asked to move, along with the at least 1,500 others who are relocated each week, to the new camp. Without food rations, they have been depending upon the generosity of others to survive.

"We've been staying in this big tent for a week," says Haviyarinama. "It's much safer because no one troubles us, but we don't have much food to eat and when it rains heavily, water comes in and it's difficult to sleep here," she says.

Haviyarimana says that when it rains they use sticks to make furrows in the muddy soil to try and drain the water, but it doesn't always work. With December's rainy season approaching Havayiramana hopes to move soon, as she fears that the already dire conditions in which she and her family live, could become much worse.

As the UN Security Council searches for a solution to Burundis political crisis, which the international community fears could escalate into civil war and another wave of massacres, hundreds more Burundians continue the desperate trek across  the border in spite of the possibility that more hardship awaits at them at the camps.

Follow Tendai on Twitter @i_amten.

Read more on:    tanzania  |  burundi  |  refugees

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