Fleeing Burundians and threat of 'Imbonerakure'

NEMBA – a beehive of Activity is what comes to mind when one thinks of a border crossing, especially one of Nemba One Stop Border Post in Bugesera District between Rwanda and Burundi, where a modern infrastructure was set up to ease movement of goods.
Residents of Bugesera look at new arrivals of refugees to Gashora camp. Hassan Mutuhe. (Hassan Mutuhe)
Residents of Bugesera look at new arrivals of refugees to Gashora camp. Hassan Mutuhe. (Hassan Mutuhe)

NEMBA – a beehive of Activity is what comes to mind when one thinks of a border crossing, especially one of Nemba One Stop Border Post in Bugesera District between Rwanda and Burundi, where a modern infrastructure was set up to ease movement of goods.

But that is now a mere perception.

Nemba One Stop Border Post is no more the place where lines of cargo trucks or their whirring engines kept the place as lively as a beehive.

The place is quite sleepy but busy. Busy because at least every 15-30 minutes, a vehicle arrives from the other side of the border. The passengers are wealthy or middle class Burundians fleeing the turmoil in their country.

Of course, this is on top of the influx of ordinary people who arrive by the droves, on foot.
At least, that is what one vendor, who is mesmerised by the many executive cars that have become common sight in the area, says.

Aime Gaspard Sindahabo, the border manager told Saturday Times that the number of Burundians crossing into Rwanda has soared in the recent past from slightly over 2,000, to almost 3,000 per week.

“Initially, we would receive 2,000 – 2,200 people. That number is now up to almost 2800,” he says.

These are the ones who have travel documents.

“Those who don’t have documents previously crossed through the Gasenyi marshland. They now pass via Munzenze,” Sindahabo explains.

The biggest question is, what are these people fleeing from? Is it widely assumed politics relating to the third term bid by President Pierre Nkurunziza and these people simply do not want to cast a ballot?

“No,” Pacifique Butoyi, a 19-year-old who’s just crossed says. “That’s from the outlook. We fled because of the Imbonerakure. They are violent, they kept asking why we were still around when our fellow Tutsis have already fled.”

Imbonerakure is a paramilitary youth wing of the Burundian ruling party, CNDD-FDD.

Butoyi is with his cousin, Thierry Munyaneza, 18, and their friend, Thacien Toyi, 19.
Gashora Reception Centre is where Burundians are welcomed and registered before they are taken to Mahama Refugee Camp, in Kirehe District.

Azarie Karangwa, the manager of the transit camp, says as of Wednesday, 1,226 men, 767 women and 1,120 children were in the camp.

“The numbers vary on different days,” he says. “In the last 24 hours, we have received over 190 people and as you can see, many are still coming in,” he adds.

Shadia Ntawisigitungo is one of the 3,113 refugees that had spent a night in the camp. The 27-year-old farmer walked from Nyarunazi in eastern Burundi with her 64-year-old mother.

Ntawisigitungo says that she paid 7,000 Burundian francs (about Rwf3,100) to a ‘guide’ who knew shortcuts to Rwanda.

“Also, these guides know villages where there are no Imbonerakure; we had to make sure we don’t meet them as we trekked. Imbonerakure are always moving about neighbourhoods, wielding clubs and machetes, threatening to kill us.

“I can’t say that they attacked me physically. But verbally, yes they did and they never gave us reason to think they were bluffing,” she said, vowing never to return to Burundi until there’s no more Imbonerakure.

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Burundian refugees queue for their evening meals at Gashora transit centre. (Hassan Mutuhe)

Encounter with dreaded youth

So didn’t they encounter any Imbonerakure on their three-day journey? Her mother quickly chipped in, saying that they did.

“They told us that we should never return,” says the older woman.

Refugees are supposed to spend only one night at Gashora, before they are transported to Kirehe, where they now number over 27,000.

But Karangwa says they haven’t transferred them for two days because the camp where they are supposed to be taken is undergoing some construction works to ensure the refugees are well accommodated.

A roving eye through the camp catches a young girl in her early teens acting as a teacher with about three dozen kids aged four to seven years. A few metres away, a health worker with a loud-hailer is introducing a lady who will be in charge of fellow refugees.

“This is your new home and you have to keep cleaning it the way you cleaned your homes back in Burundi,” says the new ‘governess.’

Aid agencies like the Red Cross, UNICEF and UNHCR, among other humanitarian agencies, have staff working in the camp. So do the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs officials who register entrants.

Nearby, there are four taps that supply water to the transit camp. Here, Djibril and his friend, Damascene, are trying to engage most people who come to fetch water in a chitchat.

The two boys are in their mid-20s and so are the people they chose to engage in a conversation.

Djibril claims that Imbonerakure are waiting for the elections to end and launch a massive onslaught.

“They had started attacking one person at a time, especially at night,” he says. And you can’t hit a bird that has already seen you; it will fly away.”

Just like Shadia, the two came walking from Bujumbura. They say they are barbers and they came with other friends who are chauffeurs.

Djibril adds that though the world is looking at the Burundi crisis as political, there’s an underlying ethnic tension as well.

As of now, he is “confined but I’m away from harm. My worry is that they (Imbonerakure) may disguise and come here as refugees and do bad things.”

He could be safely out of Burundi, but Djibril is hoping for the best for his country so that peace can return and he goes back.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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