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Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Burundi: The crisis the world forgot

Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Burundi: The crisis the world forgot
Refugees (110, IV - 1997)

1 December 1997
It is a crisis the outside world virtually ignored.

While the international community has focused its attention on Rwanda, neighbouring Burundi continues to stagger from crisis to crisis

By Ray Wilkinson

It is a land always seemingly on the edge of collapse. At least 150,000 people have been killed in ethnic conflict in the last four years alone in an area once known because of its physical beauty as the Switzerland of Africa. Hundreds of thousands more people were rounded up by the military and herded into special camps where they suffered from malnutrition and other diseases. Others fled to surrounding countries. But as the world focused its attention on Rwanda's genocide and its aftermath, it has often seemed to forget or ignore these similarly traumatic events in neighbouring Burundi.

The two countries are inextricably linked by geography and history. Former colonies of Belgium, they have been repeatedly, often simultaneously, scarred by fighting since gaining independence in the early 1960s, as the majority Hutu tribe and minority Tutsis struggled for ultimate power in both countries. Burundi's latest troubles began in October, 1993, when rebellious army units killed Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu and the country's first democratically elected president. His assassination sparked widespread inter-communal violence and the flight of several hundred thousand people. The man who had made those original elections possible, Tutsi Major Pierre Buyoya, eventually seized power again in 1996, in what he said was an attempt to halt the country sliding into even greater chaos.

Neighbours were not impressed, and nine surrounding states imposed economic sanctions on the landlocked state to try to force Buyoya to quit. Instead, the former major more than doubled the size of the army and launched a countrywide campaign to stamp out a Hutu guerrilla rebellion.

By early 1998, Buyoya had largely succeeded in that operation, but diplomats and humanitarian officials say the countryside is now so devastated, it will need massive amounts of all types of aid in the coming months. Special U.N. Human Rights rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said after one recent visit that the economic sanctions had driven Burundi into a 'dangerous isolation' where virtually 'the entire peasant population is suffering the devastating effects of malnutrition,epidemics, high prices, the lack of seeds ... and the blocking of routes for coffee and tea' - the country's principal exports.

In such an environment, humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR expect to face both an extremely complex and turbulent next year in trying to help huge numbers of internally displaced peoples and Burundi refugees in neighbouring states. UNHCR has been in Burundi itself for many years, having established its first permanent sub-Sahara Africa bureau in the country in the early 1960s.


Government forces may have 'stabilized' some of the country's 16 provinces in their battle against Hutu guerrillas, but it has come at a high human cost, according to aid workers. At one time, as many as 800,000 people were re-located into so-called displaced or regroupement camps, an operation the government called its 'master piece' plan, but which was indefensible on human rights grounds, in an effort to deny rebels material and manpower support from the rural population.

That figure has now been sharply reduced. But while the international community dithered about the status of the camps and how best to help the uprooted peasants, conditions on many of the sites ranged from 'very bad to appalling' according to one independent report, with overcrowding, malnutrition and disease such as typhoid fever and dysentery widespread. The camps were patrolled by armed guards and villagers often were unable to return to their lands or herds to tend them. An unknown number of persons died in the squalid conditions.

Even when people were subsequently allowed to leave the collective centres, many returned too late to plant the next harvest and also found their homes, schools and clinics destroyed by the fighting. Some local authorities currently are so impoverished they don't even have paper or pens to issue travel permits and other documents.

The government launched a countrywide 'villagisation programme' to eventually move entire rural populations to new concentrations along major roads. Theoretically, the project will allow peasants improved access to centralized education and health facilities, but it will also make them more easily controllable by central authorities


The future of the estimated 260,000 refugees still in neighbouring Tanzania, Congo and Rwanda is equally delicate. Large numbers have already returned home, including 55,000 'spontaneous' or unsupervised returns from Tanzania last year and smaller numbers from the other two countries. UNHCR this year scheduled a pilot project to 'facilitate' future spontaneous returns from Tanzania's Kigoma region to Ruyigi in Burundi, but not without a lot of soul searching. If that project is successful, it may be expanded to include other regions. 'Nothing is simple anymore, especially in the Great Lakes area,' one field officer said. 'We are often damned if we do, and we are certainly damned if we don't. First one side criticizes us, then the other.'

Some officials worried about the new policy, not only because parts of Burundi were still militarily insecure and other parts lacked basic infrastructure, but also because it appeared inconsistent to help refugees return to a country from which other people were continuing to leave, albeit in small numbers.

However, if refugees want to go home, if their return areas are relatively secure and their well being can be adequately monitored in the future, it was argued they should be helped in their journeys which could otherwise prove extremely hazardous.

There were other headaches to grapple with. Though Hutu returnees per se were not discriminated against in Burundi, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said ethnicity was 'sewn into the very fabric of political and social life in Burundi' and all Hutus faced hardship on a daily basis in such grassroots areas as trying to secure equal education, health and job opportunities as Tutsis.

Though UNHCR's crucial monitoring process of returnees is relatively straightforward in peaceful areas of the country, it can still take more than one day, with an armed military escort, to reach even single families in other regions of the country, making the task for UNHCR's small protection team in Burundi extremely complex and time consuming.

A small group of less than 1,000 people known collectively as 'sans adresse (without a home)' was of particular concern to UNHCR. These people fled Burundi a quarter-century ago, but when they returned recently, they discovered they had no property rights, no place of residence and not even the most tenuous link with any commune. Local leaders refused to accept them and most have been forced to live in the Gatumba transit centre near the capital of Bujumbura.

The problem could become even more critical in coming months if, as expected, many more refugees, including other longterm exiles, return from Tanzania, leaving Burundi and all of its citizens to face a very uncertain future.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)