Burundi: Many refugees do not want to return (IRIN)

| June 1, 2015

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Moise Ntiranyibagira is one of 60 passengers on a bus heading from Burundi to a transit centre in the Tanzanian lake port of Kigoma. Mr. Ntiranyibagira has lived in Burundi for less than half of his 35 years.

He says, “I’ve been running my whole life. There are a lot of us who want to stop running. We want to settle somewhere else, not in Burundi.” He adds, “I’m a farmer. Yet I can’t farm. The land is small and the people are many.”

The bus is packed with luggage: solar panels, mattresses, bicycles, stoves; people are planning to be away for a while. More than 105,000 people have fled to Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of them were born and grew up in refugee camps abroad.

A major public health crisis is brewing. Some 50,000 people are crowded into the Tanzanian village of Kagunga, bordered by mountains on one side and Lake Tanganyika on the other. According to UNICEF, cholera has already claimed 27 lives.

UNICEF issued a statement which warned: “Overcrowding and poor sanitation have resulted in a surge of confirmed or suspected cases of cholera and acute watery diarrhoea among the refugees … Without a cholera treatment centre on-site in Kagunga, mortality rates may become extremely high.”

The only easy way out of Kagunga is by boat. About 1,500 people travel by ferry every day to the lakeside city of Kigoma. Inside Kigoma’s Lake Tanganyika Stadium, medics in makeshift clinics treat rows and rows of patients. Kahindo Maina is a senior public health officer with UNICEF. He says, “[There are] hundreds of cases here. We think all the cases are cholera.”

Emablis Nyirogira watches over his five-year-old son as the child’s breathing becoming increasingly laboured. He says, “I have seven children—and fifteen square metres of land. How can I live like this?”He shrugs, adding, “I will not return to Burundi.”

In Burundi, returning refugees have the right to reclaim land they abandoned years earlier. A special commission is dedicated to resettling returnees and resolving ownership disputes. But thousands of disputes remain unresolved and courts frequently overturn the commission’s rulings.

Japhet Nzambimana is a 25-year-old student at the University of Burundi in Bujumbura, now travelling on the bus to Kigoma. The government closed the university in the early days of the recent anti-presidential protests. He says, “Both those for and against the president have left. We’re all together here; we’re just scared of the war.”

Kigoma’s stadium now holds 4,000 refugees. Many say that the actions of the state security forces played a role in their decision to leave. They said police were blocking roads to check papers and IDs, and some were stealing and seeking bribes at roadblocks.

Andrea Basigivyahbo has fled Burundi four times in the past, once to Democratic Republic of Congo and three times to Tanzania. He says, “I’ve fled so many times that this time I’m planning to stay. I don’t want to go back. We’ve been on the run since 1965.”

Photo: A Burundian refugee dozes in the midday sun at the Lake Tanganyika Stadium, a temporary transit camp for refugees in Kigoma, Tanzania. Credit: Jessica Hatcher/IRIN