Burundian refugees recount harrowing tales of persecution

Some could afford a smile or two, others looked on with weary eyes, the imaginary lines of wrinkles forming in their faces telling a tale of recent hardship.
Some of the Burindian Refugees at Gashora transit centre in Bugesera District. File.
Some of the Burindian Refugees at Gashora transit centre in Bugesera District. File.

Some could afford a smile or two, others looked on with weary eyes, the imaginary lines of wrinkles forming in their faces telling a tale of recent hardship.

The Burundian refugees at a crowded transit camp in Bugesera District show a mixture of emotions: relief and despair.

Relieved to be away from the violence raging back home, but worried about what the uncertain future holds.

At the entrance to the camp built to host, at most, 3,000 people – but then housing up to 7,000 refugees currently – The New Times finds a Police officer quizzing a youth caught selling emergency relief supplies he had stolen to locals near the camp.

Dirty and scruffy in appearance, the youth is apologetic but the remorse is watered down by his eagerness to leave.

Further inside, one gets a detailed understanding of what life is like inside an overcrowded refugee camp – a gloomy picture.

EAC challenged to act

Janviere Manirakiza, 39, a mother of three, uses her clothes and branches from nearby trees to patch up a makeshift tent for her children. The congested camp is hard hit by heat of the day, but the clouds getting pregnant foretell of the coming rain.

Manirakiza’s 9-year-old daughter Evelyne Ngabire is missing school. The child stands next to her mother, her small bright eyes darting inquisitively as we conducted interviews.

She hears her mother implore the presidents of the East African Community (EAC) partner states to intervene and help bring tranquility back to her country, and the Primary Two pupil makes her demands as well.

“I would like to go back to school. I need help. I want food and cloths,” she says.

The government and aid agencies are doing everything within their means, but it is clear the situation is overwhelming.

Pointing to her tent, a tiny fragile erection without a roof, Ngabire’s mother says: “We can’t sleep when the weather gets cold at night. The children cry.”

Next to the camp’s main health centre, haggard faces waited, a long winding queue of refugees waiting to be registered.

Further inside the camp, those who still had a little cash to buy foodstuff from locals are using splitting pieces of wood to cook on traditional three-stone hearths while others do laundry on shrubs.

The refugees fled because they did not trust their government’s intentions ahead of the presidential election on June 26. They claim that they fled from the notorious Imbonerakure, the youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for Defence and Democracy, which they say is persecuting whoever does not support President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third-term bid.

‘Happy to be safe’

Despite the unpleasant conditions, Gad Habonimana, 45, a Pentecostal church pastor from Bujumbura, said he was happy to be safe in the camp.

Habonimana sneaked out of his Kanyosha neighbourhood of Bujumbura on the night of April 11, under “difficult circumstances.” A CNDD-FDD insider had alerted him that a plan targeting him “had been finalised.”

“I was warned that if I spent a night there, by morning they would have taken me. Normally, it is Imbonerakure because they are the ones conducting such operations. They do harm while the police and the military watch on. No one touches them,” he says.

“I didn’t bother picking anything from the house. I just came as you see me.”

Fortunately for him, his wife and children live abroad.

Habonimana appealed to EAC partner states to intervene.

“If a member of the Community has a problem, the whole Community can’t function properly,” Habonimana says.

Despite all, Evelyne Twizerimana, 29, managed a smile. The mother of two girls aged nine and five was happy that her young ones were being entertained in the camp.

Refugee youth are volunteering with Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in a project where work includes running Child Friendly Spaces, where children can play together.
However, Twizerimana said, a cup of porridge in the morning and a late evening meal is not what her kids deserve.

“It is the Imbonerakure causing all this trouble. Back home, if you are in your house, all of a sudden, you see them at your door, harassing you,” she says.

On the other end of the camp, a slender and courteous Jean de Dieu Murindangabo, 23, is running errands for the camp children’s programme.

“I have one wish. We need peace in Burundi. We have left school, our future is in doubt. We wish leaders would appeal to our president so that he cedes power,” Murindangabo says.

“We are grateful for Rwanda welcoming us and for the care. And we are hopeful but many more people continue to come and the situation is very difficult.”

His mother, Joselyne Mukamana, is equally worried as children are out of school and families have been separated.

This newspaper understands that by the end of that day, eight refugees had successfully delivered babies at the local health centre.

“We took them to Gashora Health Centre for effective healthcare,” said Jean de Dieu Munyegeza, the Gashora Sector executive secretary.