Holding two vacuum flasks with a rosary around his neck and another in one in his hands, Lesticus Ntamagendo was determined to cross back to Burundi, where he fled three years ago, rather than eat processed food, undergo a biometric numeration and take vaccination against tuberculosis.
By 9:30am, he had disembarked from one of the 21 buses that ferried 1,600 Burundian asylum seekers from Gashora Transit Centre in Bugesera District to Burundi at Nemba One Stop Border Post.
Ntamagendo says he left his country after the attempted coup of April 2015, and fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a place called Kamanyola where they had settled but left after “growing persecution” meted out on them by Congolese citizens.
In late February this year, the situation in Kamanyola worsened and they decided to flee to Rwanda.
By March 7, some 2,523 of these Burundians—who were until their repatriation not recognised as refugees but asylum seekers since they were not yet registered—had crossed into Rwanda.
On arrival in Rwanda, they were immediately transferred to three temporary sites—Gashora, Nyanza and Nyarushishi—from where they would be registered and offered emergency services like medical checkups and vaccination, before being resettled in refugee camps.
These were to be added to the already of 172,000 refugees living in Rwanda; of which 53 per cent are fellow compatriots who also fled Burundi in 2015.
As is procedure for all the arriving refugees, they were to first undergo biometric registration and vaccination against measles, polio, pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria, tetanus and tuberculosis, according to officials from Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs.
But they refused, Why? Because it contradicts with their religious belief.
Olivier Rugina Kayumba, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDIMAR), said: “For the last couple of weeks, we tried, along with UN agencies, to convince them to agree to biometric registration and bring their children for vaccination but they refused. We find this risky not only to them but to the host communities as well.”
Declining these services was not an option for the asylum seekers, especially for those who come into the country from some places were such diseases were rampant, Kayumba told The New Times.
The last attempt to convince them to submit to registration and treatment was on Friday. They vehemently refused.
MIDIMAR and UNHCR asked whoever was unwilling to comply with the rules to sign a voluntary repatriation letter that would see them repatriated to their country.
“Almost all the asylum seekers signed up for voluntary repatriation,” he added.
Some of their leaders who initially didn’t want to return home had tried to incite the group into violent demonstrations but they were arrested and temporarily detained before they were later released and are among those that signed up for voluntary repatriation.
Asked why he refused to be registered and treated, Ntamagendo said, “it is simply against our God’s commands. His messenger has told us that it is satanic.”
Ntamagendo and his colleagues are members of a cult that follows a female Charismatic Catholic prophet, Euzebie Ngendakumana, commonly known as Zebiya, who is said to be in her early 40s, and claims to have had visions of the Virgin Mary.
These Burundians who claim to be Catholic and “followers of God”, told The New Times that their prophet warned them against UN data and eating food made out of the East Africa region “because it is not sanctified by ‘God’.”
They had refused any food given to them by relief agencies in the form of dry ration.
“We would rather go back home, surrender ourselves to persecution than do things our Lord doesn’t consider Holy,” Marie-Laure Sinankwa said in an interview.
Asked if she knew Zebiya personally or where she is based, Sinankwa could only affirm to know her as “just God’s messenger to us”.
After over 1,600 returned to Burundi from Bugesera Transit Camp via Nemba, another group of over 500 asylum seekers in Nyanza are also expected to cross to Burundi today and so are those in Nyarushishi.