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Survivors mark anniversary of massacre at Burundi transit camp

Survivors mark anniversary of massacre at Burundi transit camp

A year after unknown attackers killed more than 150 Congolese refugees at Gatumba transit camp just inside Burundi, survivors gathered at a ceremony in Gihinga camp to mourn the dead and share the trauma.
16 August 2005
Survivors of the Gatumba massacre, now living in Gihinga camp further inland, listen to the words of a pastor at the commemoration ceremony on August 13.

GIHINGA REFUGEE CAMP, Burundi, August 16 (UNHCR) - It was exactly a year ago that Congolese refugee Riziki woke up in a tent just inside Burundi to what she first thought was the noise of a powerful storm, but quickly realized was gunfire.

"Like a torrential rain, gunfire from automatic weapons resounded everywhere," she recalls. "No one could tell where it was coming from, but I said to myself: 'It is death'."

Riziki, a 41-year-old refugee who chose that pseudonym out of fear of revealing her true identity, was recalling the horrific massacre on August 13, 2004, of more than 150 refugees in the transit camp of Gatumba, just 3 km inside the Burundian border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Riziki was speaking on Saturday at a commemoration ceremony of the anniversary of the attack. The ceremony, which began with what the refugees called "a sad walk", was held at Gihinga refugee camp, a safer location 75 km from the border, to which the surviving refugees were moved after the attack.

Tears ran down the faces of other survivors, both men and women, as Riziki recounted the tragedy she, her husband and 10 children lived through less than a month after they had fled fighting in eastern DRC's Kivu region in July 2004. She said they survived only because they had not found ground to pitch a tent inside the transit camp, but had found refuge with an aunt just outside the camp.

Unknown attackers armed with machetes, automatic weapons and grenades swept into Gatumba camp late that night, torched seven of the 15 plastic hangars sheltering the refugees, set huts ablaze, and killed 136 people on the spot. A number of others died later in hospital, and scores were badly wounded.

"I tore the tent and I fled with my children into the bush," Riziki recalled, adding she has struggled every day during the last year to put that horrifying night behind her. "Besides my children, I carried a little boy who had just lost both his parents and who was wounded in the leg."

The hour-long ceremony at which Riziki spoke was held in a hall decorated with signs that read "Right to Life" and "Never Again". It opened with a Bible reading recalling the exodus of the Jews and their longing to return to the promised land, and songs performed by a refugee chorus. "We will leave this ground of misfortune to join ours who died," ran the words of one of the songs.

"We must now try to overcome the pain, and believe that one day we will return to our country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo", said a refugee representative, who also thanked the Burundian government for its hospitality, and the UN refugee agency for its help.

Kaba Guichard Neyaga, UNHCR's Representative in Burundi, called on Burundian authorities and the international community to combine forces to find and punish those who perpetrated the massacre.

At the time of the attack last August, there were some 800 refugees living in the Gatumba transit camp. They were part of a group of 20,000 people who fled fighting between loyalist and dissident Congolese army troops in South Kivu in June 2004 and took refuge inside Burundi. Aware that the border area was volatile, UNHCR had urged the Burundi government to provide a secure camp for them well away from the high-risk DRC border.

After the attack, the government complied. Many of the refugees have since gone home, and today Burundi still hosts 7,500 Congolese refugees in two UNHCR camps located at safe distances inland, as well as others living on their own in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura.

Gihinga's administrator tried, at the Saturday ceremony, to reassure the refugees that they are now safe. But refugees said their hearts remain fragile, that they are always afraid of another attack, because even their country of refuge, Burundi, is not completely at peace.

As Riziki put it: "I am always afraid now, even when I hear someone throwing stones on the roof."

By Didier Bukuru
UNHCR Burundi