A life of escaping conflict: 'I don't feel like a Burundian – I am a refugee' | Nicole Lee

In Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp, Ndayishimiye – who has spent 25 years in almost perpetual displacement – dreams of the day his life will be his own

Ndayishimiye has been a refugee for so long that this state of being has come to define him more than his formal nationality. The 28-year-old is from Burundi, but for decades his family has been washed back and forth across porous borders by the waves of violence that regularly batter Africa’s Great Lakes region.

Since his birth in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1987, to his present life in an overcrowded camp on the border between Tanzania and Burundi, Ndayishimiye – who does not want to give his full name – has spent more than a quarter of a century in a state of almost perpetual displacement.

“I’m tired of being a refugee,” he says, in the Nyarugusu camp where he now lives. “I would like the UNHCR [UN refugee agency] to provide some kind of university training here, to further my education. But there’s nothing I can do.”

Ndayishimiye’s father, a Hutu, fled Burundi first in 1972 with his Tutsi wife and family, and headed to neighbouring DRC to escape ethnic violence. The family returned in 1993, but were forced back to DRC when civil war broke out in Burundi just two months later, pitting rebels from the Hutu majority against the Tutsi-led army.

Three years later, the family left DRC, fleeing a new conflict in that country. They spent some time in Tanzania before being repatriated to Burundi in 2012. They fled again in May, after Burundi was gripped by violence and fear following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third term as leader of the densely populated nation of about 10 million people, who are among the most malnourished in the world. Nkurunziza’s decision triggered street protests, clashes with police, and a short-lived coup.

Today, Ndayishimiye lives in a small family tent with two brothers and three sisters. His three other siblings, parents and foster brother also live at the camp.

A busload of refugees arrives at Nyarugusu camp, Tanzania
Busloads of refugees arrive at Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania every day, and pressure on resources on the camp are mounting. Photograph: Luca Sola

“There’s no life here,” he says of Nyarugusu, one of the world’s biggest and most overcrowded camps, and home to 160,000 people. “This place is a prison.”

The average time that refugees are uprooted and in need of assistance, unable to return home or find refuge in another country, is 17 years, according to the UNHCR. The global toll of these protracted individual emergencies is stark: today, one in every 122 people is either a refugee, or internally displaced, or seeking asylum.

The crisis in Burundi has added to that toll with more than 200,000 people fleeing the country to seek shelter in Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, DRC and Uganda since April. Many of those who have fled in recent months have cited their fear of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD ruling party.

Even before his family’s home was destroyed in this latest violence, Ndayishimiye had reason to fear the Imbonerakure, whose rebel predecessors had tried to recruit him when he was 15 and living in Muyovozi camp in Tanzania. This was during the 12-year civil war, which killed around 300,000 people in Burundi.

“They came in the middle of the night, saying, ‘We need you and your brother’,” he says. As they grappled with his brother Emmanuel, they broke his arm. Ndayishimiye says the rebels only left them alone when the war ended in 2005.

After they had returned home from Tanzania, Ndayishimiye’s father was imprisoned three times as the family tried to reclaim the land they had lost while they had been out of the country, a common issue for Burundians who have fled and returned.

Ndayishimiye says he “hated” his time in Burundi. “The Imbonerakure … control everything, and they are always coming after you for money and to intimidate you,” he says. “It was always insecure.”

Most people in the Nyarugusu camp live in tents for up to 10 people. New arrivals are being lodged in large shelters made out of logs and plastic sheeting, but a spike in recent arrivals has meant these too are overcrowded. Since the beginning of October, the numbers of refugees arriving by bus each day have swelled from an average of 200 people to as many as 1,142, putting pressure on resources.

Now, UNHCR has started moving 50,000 people from Nyarugusu to other camps in north-west Tanzania to ease crowding.

“Urgent work is required at Nyarugusu,” UNHCR said. “Strong winds have damaged several mass shelters, exacerbating the already dire living conditions. Refugees also need to be relocated to higher ground from some areas which are flood-prone.”

“The imperative is to decongest the camps, as well as protect people from flooding during the upcoming rainy season,” said UNHCR spokesperson Joyce Mends-Cole.

She said that the new sites – in Nduta, Mtendeli and Karago – were being prepared but because they had been used for displaced people in the past, the necessary structures were already in place. However, some aid agencies say Nduta, which will take the majority of the refugees, is not ready.

“We are particularly concerned about the move because the new site does not have enough water to service the population,” said Dana Krause, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) field coordinator in Nyarugusu. Additionally, while the focus moves to the new site, the congested Nyarugusu camp still needs attention. “The rainy season combined with the poor living conditions in Nyarugusu will most likely result in another cholera outbreak,” she said.

For Ndayishimiye, if the move means better conditions in the long-run, he would be keen to go. He still dreams of a future – he would like a girlfriend to “be serious and have a family with” – but he is also tormented by the hopelessness of his situation. His life has never really been his own.

“The UNHCR calls me a Burundian, but I don’t feel like I am a Burundian,” he says. “This is my life. I am a refugee.”


Nicole Lee in Nyarugusu camp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tanzania warns return of hundreds of Burundian refugees is just the start
Burundians who fled political violence at home complain of pressure tactics as 600 people are repatriated voluntarily

Peter Beaumont and agencies

07, Oct, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Tanzania president under fire for urging refugees to return to 'stable' Burundi
As peace talks between government and opposition in Burundi stall, activists warn John Magufuli’s suspension of refugee registration endangers thousands

Samuel Okiror

29, Jul, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘Huge spike’ in global conflict caused record number of displacements in 2021
Those fleeing combat were internally displaced 14.4m times, with biggest toll in sub-Saharan Africa, report reveals

Lizzy Davies

19, May, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
One in every 113 people forced to flee, says UN refugee agency
As number of people driven from home exceeds 60 million for first time, UN refugee agency sounds alarm over failure of nations to find collective solutions

Sam Jones

20, Jun, 2016 @8:59 AM

Article image
World’s poorest bear brunt of climate crisis: 10 underreported emergencies
Care International report highlights ‘deep injustice’ neglected by world’s media, as extreme weather along with Covid wipes out decades of progress

Saeed Kamali Dehghan

14, Jan, 2022 @6:15 AM

Article image
Wars push number of internally displaced people to record levels

Crises in Syria and Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2012 help push total figure of people displaced worldwide to 28 million

Mark Tran

29, Apr, 2013 @8:00 AM

Article image
Nowhere to run: Burundi violence follows escapees across borders
Attackers are entering refugee camps in Tanzania and other neighbouring countries to hunt down opponents and their relatives

Emma Graham-Harrison in Nyarugusu

15, Apr, 2016 @5:00 AM

Article image
US increases aid to Central African Republic amid new surge of violence

Chad closes borders to CAR escapees as lack of ID papers adds to confusion over status of many displaced people

Celeste Hicks and Sam Jones

26, Jun, 2014 @11:54 AM

Article image
The world looks away as blood flows in Burundi
More than a quarter of a million people have fled in terror as opposition militias plot their return. Without international assistance a humanitarian disaster looms

Emma Graham-Harrison

10, Apr, 2016 @6:05 AM

Article image
‘I prayed to God to find him’: the families scattered by violence in DRC
Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents and guardians as people flee rebel attacks on eastern parts of the country

Sam Mednick in Rutshuru

25, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM