Burundian refugees narrate ordeal

Bernadine Ingabire has spent a month at Mahama refugee camp in Kirehe District, praying that calm returns to her home country Burundi.
Marie Mushimirimana, whose husband was allegedly killed by Imbonerakure militia narrates her ordeal last week. (S. Rwembeho)
Marie Mushimirimana, whose husband was allegedly killed by Imbonerakure militia narrates her ordeal last week. (S. Rwembeho)

Bernadine Ingabire has spent a month at Mahama refugee camp in Kirehe District, praying that calm returns to her home country Burundi.

“It all went wrong when the ruling party started intimidating the opposition and arming its own militia(imbonerakure). I was a secretary to the leader (Mayor) of Cibitoke in Bujumbura…I saw my boss distribute weapons to militias. I also knew many other ill secrets of the ruling party by virtue of my position in my work place,” Ingabire said.

Ingabire’s eyes open wide as she narrates her experience back home.

“Because I had seen what they were doing and knew their plans, I was black listed among those to be eliminated. On learning that, I fled the country and came to Rwanda,” she said in an interview with The New Times last week.

Ingabire is one of the about 23,000 Burundians hosted at Mahama refugee camp.

Tensions have heightened in Burundi after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid for a third five-year term.

More than 110,000 Burundians are reported to have fled to Rwanda, Tanzania and DR Congo in the wake of the growing political tension.

The United Nations, the European Union and African nations on Sunday urged the government and the opposition not to let violence derail dialogue, following the killing of an opposition politician, Zedi Feruzi, on Saturday.

The Red Cross has put the death toll at about 20 people.

Marie Jeanne Nshimirimana, another refugee from Bujumbura, said militia men killed her husband before torching their car in broad day-light.

“My husband was killed in cold blood…the vehicle he was travelling in was burnt to ashes. This forced me to leave the country to safety.

‘‘After losing my husband at the hands of ruthless armed criminals, I had nothing more to save. Burundi needs international intervention because it is on the verge of total collapse,” she said.

Teachers flee

Scores of teachers say they fled Burundi as a result of coercion to teach partisan politics.
Presidential elections are scheduled for June 26, while parliamentary and local council polls are due on June 5.

Innocent Niyibanje, who doubles as a university student and high school teacher, said the ruling party was forcing teachers to teach partisan politics.

“How do you start teaching a class of 60 students that a particular political party is better than the other? Students have different backgrounds. ‘‘So, when we refused to teach this cheap politics, we were regarded as enemies,” Niyibanje said.

He narrated that the elite that did not belong to the ruling party were the prime targets.

“Anyone against ideas of the ruling party was in trouble… a list of those to be dealt with (killed) was compiled. But as teachers, we found it strange and unacceptable, to politicise in education.

‘‘We couldn’t teach and, at the same time, preach political divisionism in school. Some teachers like me decided to flee the country,” Niyibanje said.

“It’s important to be professional and principled. We shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into contributing to politics that we don’t even believe in,” he added.

Bernadine Ingabire was Secretary to the Mayor of Kibitoke. (Photos by Sephen Rwembeho)

Other refugees reported similar tales.

Some children were advised to flee their own country by their parents who remained.
About 55 per cent of the refugees at the Mahama camp are children.

When this paper visited the camp last week, hundreds of young boys and girls were found either fetching water or playing, while others stood idle.

It is a sad reality that most children left their parents home, as they started a long journey to search for refuge in neighbouring countries.

According to children who talked to this paper, their parents were either old or too weak to walk several kilometers.

Yohana Mbonabaza, 16, said his parents told him to venture into the wild, adding they were too old to walk.

“My parents advised my siblings and I (we are four here), to find a way out of the country. ‘My children escape before you are killed…for us we are too old to walk.

‘‘So go, we wish you good luck.’ These are some of the words they told us before we embarked on a journey that ended here in Mahama,” Mbonabaza said.

Grace Mukiza, 14, said she was struggling with life since she left her parents, adding that life in camp was so difficult.

“My father was killed…he left my mother pregnant. She couldn’t manage to walk with us here as she was too heavy. I have been putting on these clothes for more than a month now…I hate what I am going through, but at least I am away from militias (Imbonerakure),’’ she said.

UNHCR, UNICEF and Plan International have been working to identify all separated and unaccompanied children so they can get the assistance they need.

A cumulative number of 900 unaccompanied and separated children have so far been registered in the UNHCR database.

ICRC registered about 500 unaccompanied children of which more than 300 are now back in contact with their families thanks to Rwanda Red Cross / the International Committee of the Red Cross phone call services.

The children are therefore no longer in need of tracing services but will be provided with the opportunity to maintain the link with their family due to the unpredictability of the situation in Burundi, the UNHCR said.




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