Three weeks after Mahama camp was set up in Kirehe District, the Burundian refugee population has surged from just under 8,000 to about 18,000 as of Friday evening, by end of next week, the number is projected to have reached 25,000 with majority being children.
On Friday, Erica J. Barks-Ruggles, the US ambassador to Rwanda, visited the camp and although impressed by efforts by the Rwandan government and humanitarian agencies to take care of the refugees, she decried developments in Burundi that displaced civilians from their country.
“I am very pleased with the efforts of the Rwandan government and all humanitarian agencies that have received the refugees, we shall certainly continue to offer our support, but what’s important is to see that all these people return to their homes,” said the Ambassador.
Saber Azam, the country representative for the UN’s refugee agency, echoed the Ambassador’s call for a need to return peace to Burundi so that people can stop fleeing the country.
“We need everything, from food to clothing and medicine and as more people continue coming, Rwanda will need all the help from everywhere to help take care of the refugees,” said Azam.
Also present during the American envoy’s tour was Antoine Ruvebana, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIDMAR). He urged the refugees to be patient and also feel safe.
“When you talk about refugees, Rwandans know what it means, we have been there before ourselves, that’s why we shall do all we can in partnership with other stakeholders to ensure that you lack nothing that we can provide,” he said.
Life in camp
All said and done, officials know that nothing is better for the refugees than being able to return to their homes, and in her final message shortly after touring the camp, Ambassador Barks-Ruggles said pressure on President Pierre Nkurunziza should continue to ensure he respects the Arusha accord.
“The Arusha accords must be respected. That’s the only way we can help end restore calm in Burundi and enable these people to return to their country,” said the Ambassador.
No one knows when calm will be restored in Burundi, but for now, the over 25,000 Burundian civilians that have fled to Rwanda have to adjust to life in a refugee camps.
Others are reported to have fled to Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Humanitarian agencies say top on their agenda is to ensure that every registered refugee has a roof over their head, food and basic medical care for the sick.
Earlier, refugee representatives had complained to the American envoy that parents are being compelled to share sleeping space in the tents with their grown up children something that’s not in line with Burundian values.
But officials said the current intervention is at emergency level and that the refugees have to be patient as solutions to some of their problems are being sought.
The refugees also expressed their concerns regarding the education needs of the school going kids who form over 60 percent of the camp’s population; before fleeing, they were in school but they’re now idle in the camp which could result in negative consequences.
But UN’s Azam told Sunday Times that plans are under way to address the education needs of the children with a long term plan of integrating some of them into local schools.
“Starting Monday, we will be identifying teachers, first in the refugee community and then outside so that the kids can resume school again,” he said.
But Ruvebana also urged adults in the camp to improvise and help keep the kids busy with constructive activities in the camp to cut on their idle hours.
“I am sure a tent can be provided where you can keep the kids busy learning something for two or three hours daily,” he said.
On Friday, pupils from Green Hills Academy in Kigali took the long journey to Mahama to deliver donations that included books, clothes and toys.
More such innervation will be needed in the coming weeks, months or years depending on how the situation evolves back home.
Will Nkurunziza yield?
Although President Nkurunziza is under international pressure to abandon his third term bid, there are no signs yet that he will yield with just a few weeks remaining ahead of the country’s general elections scheduled for next month.
According to the Arusha accords of 2000, the President is entitled to only two terms in office; Nkurunziza’s first term started in 2005 after a college of legislators backed him to be the country’s post civil-war leader.
He retained office after the 2010 election in which he was the only candidate (following the withdrawal of his main challengers.)
But in a twist of events, Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party last month endorsed him for re-election in next month’s general elections arguing that the president’s first term doesn’t count because he was ‘appointed’ and not elected.
However this angered opposition groups and civil society activists who have rejected the President’s attempts to stay-on and rallied likeminded Burundians to protest.
As a result, the country has been rocked by violent confrontations between protestors and security forces leaving over a dozen people killed.
Over 35,000 Burundians fled the country after the violence, 25,000 of those are now in Rwanda where they have been granted refugee status and a camp set up in Mahama to accommodate them.
Early this week, the country’s constitutional court ruled that Nkurunziza’s desire for a third term wasn’t illegal.
But the fleeing of Sylvère Nimpagaritse, the court’s vice-president cast significant doubt over the decision with UK government among those saying the judges didn’t act independently.
The West and international community insist Nkurunziza’s time is up but this is not their matter to deal with so they have tossed the dice over the region’s leaders to pressurize their counterpart in a week that saw UN’s chief Ban Ki Moon requesting Uganda’s leader Museveni to intervene.
The EAC has been vacillating on the issue but with pressure on them to act surging, the region’s current chair, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete finally set the ball rolling when he early this week deployed three Ministers of foreign affairs to Bujumbura on a fact finding mission.
President Kikwete will meet his counterparts on Wednesday next week in Tanzania to consider the Ministers’ mission report and inform what action they will take to resolve the political tiff in Burundi.
So all eyes will be watching what the leaders decide next week. Analysts believe this is a significant test for EAC leaders but Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame became the first of them to break the silence and made his opinion on the matter known.
“If your own citizens are telling you we don’t want you to do this or to lead us, it is because they are saying you are not delivering much to us.
So how do you say I am staying anyway whether you want me or not? This is a serious problem,” Kagame said the 45th St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland.
But it’s a problem the EAC leaders must solve.