'They're killing them': Burundians flee in fear of president's power play | Hannah Summers

With tensions running before a referendum that would allow Pierre Nkurunziza to prolong his hold on power, even those Burundians who have fled to Rwanda are scared

Aline Niragira was five years old when Burundi’s first democratically elected Hutu president was assassinated by Tutsi extremists, sparking mass killings and a brutal civil war that would last 12 years.

During a raid on her home in Ruyigi province the girl was pelted with stones and her neck was slashed with a machete by attackers. Her father and three brothers were murdered but, miraculously, she survived.

Now 30 and with her own young family, Aline finds her life in turmoil once more due to the violence and instability that blights Burundi.

She fled to neighbouring Rwanda in December and now lives among an estimated 64,000 Burundians at the Mahama refugee camp in Kirehe province.

With the nation gripped by violence in the prelude to a controversial referendum vote on 17 May, the conflict in her home country is this time drawn along political rather than ethnic lines.

The vote could allow the extension of Pierre Nkurunziza’s term from five to seven years, paving the way for him to stay in power until 2034, as the proposed changes would allow him to stand for re-election despite having already served three terms. The campaign has been marked by allegations of widespread intimidation and violence against opposition supporters.

“The women of the ruling party tried to make me join their campaign, but I refused. It made it unsafe for me to stay,” says Aline.

“I left because these women threatened me. They said they would cut my neck again,” she explains, running her hand along her scars.

Florida Uwera, education assistant at the camp, says: “We have seen a sharp increase in the number of refugees arriving every day. They are against the referendum and the government is killing them.”

Others have been here since 2015, when the news that Nkurunziza would seek a third term as president – a move his opponents deemed unconstitutional – led to a failed coup.

The clampdown on protesters and ensuing violence led to an estimated 1,200 deaths and has forced 400,000 people into exile.

About 174,000 Burundians reside in Rwanda, with the Mahama camp supporting the biggest share, roughly 64,000 inhabitants.

Since 2015, the camp has been transformed. Emergency tents have given way to hundreds of neat rows of brick huts stretching out along the border with Tanzania, the fringes of Rwandan’s eastern neighbour clearly visible in the distance.

Construction of new semi-permanent shelters in Mahama refugee camp
New semi-permanent shelters are built in Mahama refugee camp. Photograph: Shaban Masengeshoo/UNHCR

Mireille, 30, arrived in the camp in August 2015 with her husband, 32, their eight-year-old son, who is disabled, and his brothers, aged four and one.

“My husband was in a demonstration and the police were looking for him, so we had to get out,” she says. “My eldest son is very sick and it was hard to bring him - he can’t talk or walk.”

Before leaving the couple had been seeking to take him to India for an operation on his spine. Now their hopes for improving his health have been placed on hold. For how long, they do not know.

Inside their hut, Mireille’s eldest son lies on a mat, resting his head in his brother’s lap while she feeds the baby. Their father, who works as a cleaner and gardener at the camp, is not around so she has her hands full.

“Sometimes there is not enough soap to keep the children clean,” she says. “We cook outside on a small stove and we all sleep in one room.“There are no tensions between refugees but, sometimes, groups of men from the militia group have tried to infiltrate the camp and threaten people.”

The UN has condemned what it has described as a “campaign of terror” by government-backed militia in Burundi calling for the rape and murder of those with perceived links to the opposition.

Hundreds of girls and women have allegedly been raped by members of the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party.

Sandrine, who arrived at Mahama camp alone when she was just 15, is among those who fled in fear of the Imbonerakure.

Sandrine, 18, in Mahama camp
Sandrine, 18, has lived at Mahama camp for three years after fleeing the Imbonerakure. Photograph: Courtesy of Hannah Summers

“I was living in Kirundo province with my family, but I was scared of the militia groups who had been torturing people,” she says. “They raped any women they could, and I saw it happen to my friends. I decided to leave without even telling my family. I’ve had no contact with them since.”

Sandrine regrets that she has missed out on years of schooling. She yearns to study again.

Others have had some support to continue their education. Jean Claude studies at Mount Kenya University, commuting more than 80 miles to Kigali for lessons.

Dressed in a pristine white shirt and pressed suit trousers, the 29-year-old says: “We need to study but it’s hard. When night falls it’s completely dark and we have no lamps.”

He had been living in a militia town in Burundi, and saw young people killed and tortured. “I moved to Karuzi, but I still felt in danger,” he says.

“I had been about to start university when I left Burundi and when I reached here I was assisted by the charity, Maison Shalom.”

He is among scores of young people supported by Marguerite Barankitse, a Burundian humanitarian who is living in exile in Kigali after moving her organisation across the border.

During Burundi’s civil war she set up Maison Shalom to support children who had been orphaned. When the conflict ended in 2005, she helped them return to their communities. Some of those children, now adults, have become refugees and need her help once again.

Barankitse is making one of her frequent visits to the site, where dozens of people are building a workshop, singing as they pass buckets of cement and lay bricks.

The construction, funded by money made available after Barankitse won the 2016 Aurora humanitarian prize, will house sewing machines and a cybercafe so that young people can be trained in tailoring and sell clothes online.

“I came to the refugee camp in 2015 and gathered some of the young people who had stopped studying,” Barankitse says. “They began English lessons and in September 2016 they were able to return to university here in Rwanda.

“The goal is they will be able to return to Burundi but, while we wait, we must provide training and create jobs for them.”

Marguerite Barankitse takes part in constructing a workshop at Mahama camp
Burundian humanitarian Marguerite Barankitse (in red shirt) takes part in constructing a workshop at Mahama camp. Photograph: Courtesy of Hannah Summers

Aurora prize money has enabled 365 Burundian refugees to graduate in the past two years.

Back in Kigali, at the charity’s Oasis of Peace community centre, Burundian student Jeoffrey Mwihevyi describes his hopes for the future.

He was living at Mahama but, thanks to Maison Shalom, he is now studying law at a university in Kigali.

“My parents worked for the government but turned against the president, so we had to leave,” says the 27-year-old.

“At first I struggled, but now I have a job driving tourists and have started my degree. I want to stay in Rwanda and study international law. I hope one day I might be able to hold the Burundian government to account for what it has done.”

Barankitse adds: “We fled here together, Hutus and Tutsis. We see how people in Rwanda have suffered so much but turned the page. Our government should learn from the leaders here, who have rebuilt the country with love and vision.”


Hannah Summers in Kirehe

The GuardianTramp

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