Burundi refugees say there is no turning back as fears grow of reprisals at home

Thousands of refugees who fled to Rwanda are resigned to long stay amid concerns that violence in Burundi could reignite tensions of civil war era

Evariste Hakizimana arrived at the Bugesera camp in eastern Rwanda last month, after members of the Imbonerakure, the feared youth wing of Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party, turned up at his house in the middle of the night.

“Don’t tell us that we never warned you,” he recounts that they told him. The next day he left with his family for Rwanda.

Since early April, more than 112,000 refugees have fled Burundi to Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), amid rising violence and intimidation, mainly by the Imbonerakure, in the runup to June’s presidential elections.

The refugee crisis peaked after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced on 25 April that he would stand for a third term, triggering street protests in the capital, Bujumbura. After violent clashes between protesters and police, General Godefroid Niyombare last week led a coup attempt but failed to take control of the country.

Nkurunziza, who was abroad at the time of the coup attempt, has returned to Burundi and is purging his cabinet. Protesters have been warned that they will be treated as accomplices of the rebel generals while rights activists have accused Nkurunziza of repressing opposition and gagging the independent media.

The crisis has raised fears of further instability in a volatile region where armed groups often crisscross borders to prey on communities, and where several civil wars have left a deep legacy of fear and distrust.

In Burundi, memories are still raw over the conflict between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis that left around 300,000 people dead a decade ago. During that conflict, Nkurunziza was among the mainly Hutu rebels fighting against the army, which was then dominated by the Tutsi minority. Despite the integration of both groups into the army – Niyombare is also a Hutu – fears that the crisis could spiral are still driving people across the country’s borders.

Placede Mukerabirori remained in Burundi throughout the 12-year civil war, during which her parents were killed. This time, however, she decided to flee after she was threatened by Imbonerakure militias.

“We cannot go back as long as [President] Nkurunziza is in the leadership,” she said. “If we went back and he was the leader, we would die, especially us – the refugees coming back. He would believe we were the enemies.”

Between 24 and 26 April, the number of refugees crossing the Rwandan frontier every day surged to between 15,000 and 23,000. The UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) scrambled to attend to this massive influx, and for several days, Bugesera camp, which was designed to hold 8,000 people, was home to more than 13,000.

Bugesera’s 35 hastily built “hangers” of tarpaulin and tree trunks are the first stop for many of the 27,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda. Now, the UNHCR, along with the Rwandan government, has begun the process of relocating hundreds of refugees a day from Bugesera to a larger, more permanent camp.

Since the failed coup, up to 200 refugees a day have continued to stream across the border and UN officials are preparing for many more in the coming weeks. The agency estimates that as many as 100,000 could flee to Rwanda as the election nears.Saber Azam, UNHCR’s representative in Rwanda, says one of their biggest challenges has been attending to the large numbers of children. Many are without their parents, and around 30% are malnourished.

“Our hope is that the situation in Burundi will improve and that they will feel secure and they will return to their country,” said Azam, noting, however, that the agency was preparing for this not to happen.

Last week, east African heads of state condemned the coup attempt and called for Burundian elections to be held in “a free, fair and peaceful manner”. Rwanda has also called for a return to stability in Burundi, which relies on foreign aid to meet half its budget.

According to officials at Rwanda’s ministry of disaster management and refugee affairs, Rwanda will cap the number of Burundian refugees in the country at 60,000. After the cap has been reached, Rwanda will work with the UN and the international community to open a “humanitarian corridor” to allow refugees to pass through Rwanda to neighbouring countries.

“We can’t close our borders to prevent refugees from coming,” said a ministry official who did not want to be named. The exact details of the passage and end destination have yet to be determined.

So far, the ethnic tensions that characterised the civil war do not seem to be a problem among refugees in Bugesera. People appear united by their politics.

“No one here at the camp supports Nkurunziza,” said Frazile Rwasa, a Tutsi refugee who arrived on 20 April. “All those who support him are back in Burundi.”

But Hakizimana fears the crisis could take on ethnic dimensions. “Things are moving from politics to ethnicity,” he said. He fears that, if he returns, he will be targeted as an enemy of the president because he is a Tutsi.

After hearing news of the coup attempt last Wednesday, thousands of residents at Bugesera sang, danced, and planned their return to Burundi. But with the failure of the coup now confirmed, they are settling in for a long stay in Rwanda.

Katherine Sullivan, in Bugesera

The GuardianTramp

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