What next for thousands of Burundi refugee kids?

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) biggest concern is to make refugee camps as secure, comfortable and equipped with the basic needs as can possibly be done.
Some of the Burundian children refugees at the Gashora Transit Centre in Bugesera District. (File)
Some of the Burundian children refugees at the Gashora Transit Centre in Bugesera District. (File)

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) biggest concern is to make refugee camps as secure, comfortable and equipped with the basic needs as can possibly be done.

However, UNHCR country representative Saber Azam is also aware that there is no place better than home.

“It’s our wish that the situation in Burundi can be pacified so that all the displaced civilians can return home in the shortest time possible,” Azam told Saturday Times on Wednesday during his tour of Mahama Refugee Camp in Kirehe District, where Burundian refugees are being settled.

On Wednesday, there were close to 8,000 refugees in the camp set up only about 10 days earlier, but by Thursday, the number had risen to slightly above 10,000 as more Burundians arrived from various holding camps in the country.

In months to come, the 50-hectare-large Mahama camp in the Eastern Province close to the border with Tanzania will probably be ‘home’ to about 50,000 refugees, the maximum it can hold, officials said.

Opened late last month, Mahama camp’s lifespan is unknown. In an interview, the UNHCR chief could only hope and wish for everyone involved knows that the situation depends on the developments in Burundi.

Protests broke out in the capital Bujumbura, last weekend, after the country’s ruling party endorsed incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza for a controversial third term in office.

The resultant confrontation between those opposed to it and its supporters has seen thousands more flee the country to Rwanda, DR Congo and other neigbouring countries.

Refugees recount ordeal

Burundi is known for its deep ethnic tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu but, according to refugees spoken to, what’s going on back home isn’t about ethnicity, it’s essentially politics and those affected are from both sides of the ethnic divide.

Saturday Times spoke to Janine Minani, a 24-year-old refugee woman who was forced to flee her country in an advanced pregnancy state. Minani gave birth to a baby girl a day after arriving in the camp. She has four other children.

“I am very bitter with my president, I am one of those who voted for him in 2010, but now I am here because of hooligans who have been sent to intimidate us, even the police couldn’t rein them in,” she lamented.

Bonaventure Murekezi, 30, said he, too, voted for President Nkurunziza in 2010, but he fled after reports that the Imbonerakure militia had been armed to deal with anyone suspected to be in disagreement with the third term.

“I would probably vote for the president if he wanted a third term but not by force, I don’t need anyone to force me to decide and that’s what imbonerakure are doing to people, it’s a shame,” he said.

Imbonerakure is allegedly the youth wing of Burundi’s current ruling party CNND-FDD and according to multiple sources among the refugees, they have been armed with weapons to target anyone opposed to the third term, an assignment they been at since end of February.

The irony is that some of the refugees who spoke to Saturday Times on Wednesday, admitted that they hadn’t personally encountered any member of the youth militia but that they had heard reports of their gruesome works and decided they didn’t want to wait to be victims.

However, a 61-year-old man who was seated under a tree shade waiting for his family members to arrive, claimed that he saw the imbonerakure at work.

“I was at the marketplace when three members of imbonerakure showed up; they picked on one fruit vendor, beat him up and ate his fruits. Four other people suffered the same state and the police just looked on saying that imbonerakure have been sent from ‘above,’” the elderly man claimed.

In his village, he added, a neigbour had woken up in the morning only to find that his cow had been slaughtered and the meat spread at his doorstep. It was a sordid message whose authors he couldn’t wait to meet; he gathered his family and fled.

So, everyone in the camp either fled after encountering imbonerakure violence or from hearsay of the group’s alleged persecution.

For Adolph Ndamage, it’s now the third time that he finds himself as a refugee in Rwanda. When he left a refugee camp around 2007, after the ceasefire that brought Nkurunziza to power in 2005, he thought peace had returned to Burundi forever.

Eight years later, he’s back in refugee life, with his second wife and their 4-year-old child. Ndamage is a bitter man and vows he has no intentions to return home.

“All my adult life I have been on the run; I have not had a chance to settle and develop myself because of selfish leaders who don’t care about their people or country, I would rather stay in this camp in peace than go to a place I call home but devoid of peace,” said the 50-year old.

What next for children?

David Muyambi, a humanitarian field official with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), told Saturday Times, yesterday, that there were more than 10,000 refugees in the camp by Thursday evening.

“Of these, 65 per cent are children and about 25 per cent are women,” he said.

A Plan International official said on Friday that by Thursday evening, they had counted over 170 children who were unaccompanied.

“The youngest are aged four while the oldest are aged 17; we have managed to attach them to families within the camp who will act as caretakers but we have to be very careful in this process and given that we are still assessing, the number of unaccompanied kids could rise,” she said.

Many of the kids fled with their elder sisters or brothers; they fled from factors unknown into an unknown future. What next for them now?  It’s a question that humanitarian agencies that have pooled resources will busy themselves with in the coming months.

At the time of fleeing, most of the kids were still in school and they need to be returned to school, a responsibility that squarely now falls in the hands of UNHCR in close partnership with the Government of Rwanda.

According to ADRA’s Muyambi, the kids will be integrated in the local schools near the Mahama camp; this, in partnership with the local government authorities of Kirehe District.

“It’s a lengthy process that involves, first, orienting the children, then assessing their academic levels to determine their placements since the education system in Burundi is different from that of Rwanda,” said Muyambi.

For instance, in Rwanda, kids are taught in English and Kinyarwanda, which would require the Burundian children to first attain competences in the languages to cope.

These are needs that Kirehe vice-mayor (social affairs) Jacqueline Murekatete has promised to deliver on in partnership with other stakeholders.

“We need to especially care for the children, the elderly and the mothers who are vulnerable. These refugees are our people and we will ensure that they are safe,” she said.