Burundi has been in turmoil since June 2015, when the incumbent president was re-elected for a controversial third term. Hundreds of people were killed in the unrest and violence that followed, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country for safety. Rwanda is among the neighbouring nations offering sanctuary to Burundian refugees. Alan Whelan reports from the Trócaire-supported Mahama refugee camp in eastern Rwanda.
We first reported on the situation in Burundi, and our work supporting Burundian refugees at Mahama camp in eastern Rwanda, this time last year.
At that time, 450 people had been killed in the violent unrest and government repression that followed the controversial re-election of Burundian president President Pierre Nkurunziza for a third term. Burundi’s government had barred UN investigators from the country, and then made history by becoming the first government to vote to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The total number of lives lost in Burundi due to political unrest is unknown. Some estimates are now as high as 2,000 people.
Around 418,000 Burundians have fled the country over the last two years. This number is projected to rise to 534,000 by the end of 2017.
Last month, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said it had "reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed and continue to be committed" in the country, citing violations including executions, torture and sexual violence, sanctioned at "the highest level of the state".
Tanzania is hosting by far the most Burundian refugees at 242,340, followed by Rwanda with 85,741, Democratic Republic of Congo with 40,015, Uganda with 36,278, Kenya with 6,582 and Southern African countries are hosting 7,124 people.
(Refugee figures are taken from the latest UNHCR Burundi Situation report, June 2017).
Of the 85,741 Burundian refugees in Rwanda, 53,000 live in Mahama camp in Kirehe district, eastern Rwanda.
Prior to my visit there in August this year, several people told me that Mahama is not a typical refugee camp. On arrival the sturdy semi-permanent homes, clearly delineated roads, and latrines for every three houses testify to this.
Sadly Rwanda now has plenty of experience running refugees camps. As a result of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Rwandan Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs (MIRIMAR) runs five other refugee camps for Congolese. This experience has perhaps helped in the construction of Mahama camp.
In addition to its well-built homes, the camp has a number of features designed to increase safety levels. These include street lighting, male and female latrines fitted with locks, and child-friendly spaces supervised by professionals.
Caritas Rwanda is helped in its work by a volunteer group of Burundians living in the camp.
“I am happy to be a volunteer.” says Signoline Ndereyimana, 42. “It helps me to be able to help my fellow Burundians. Being a volunteer keeps me busy so I have less time to be in my head, and worrying and thinking about the past. And it helps me to feel useful.”
Moses Mpawenimana, 31, is the leader of the Caritas Rwanda volunteer group. Nicknamed 'The President', he says, “We support the distribution of food at the camp. We also help with receiving new arrivals. We cook porridge and serve it to them on their first two days in the camp. This is the time when they are still getting registered here. We also do home visits and see how people are coping with life in the camp. Where we think people need psychological help we bring them to the Caritas counsellor."
Many people in the camp have suffered huge psychological distress before they get here; family members may have been murdered in the conflict in Burundi, many are survivors of sexual gender based violence and many have been divided from family members and do not know now where they are or if they are safe.
All of them have been uprooted from the social structures that may have supported them in the past.
Philomene Uwingabire, 47, a nurse and trained counsellor provides counselling for refugees in Mahama camp.
She says there is a great need for psychosocial support in the camp. Philomene told me many women fleeing the conflict in Burundi are survivors of sexual gender based violence and this is the most common problem she deals with in her sessions.
She carries out eight to nine one-hour sessions a day.
Philomene has been working here for over two years and has over 20 years’ experience working in camps, including her work with Rwandan refugees in Tanzania following the 1994 genocide.
She says “I enjoy listening to and helping people though it is hard when you try to help and you can see the person is not improving.”
In extreme cases of severe distress Philomene refers her clients to more specialised services provided within the camp, often to Save the Children, who are a major provider of health services within Mahama.
She has also provided training in active listening to Caritas Rwanda volunteers to give them the capacity and confidence to carry out their home visits around the camp.
While the UN’s World Food Programme carries out the main food distribution in the camp, the Trócaire-supported Caritas Rwanda food distribution programme focuses on giving extra support to three vulnerable groups: the elderly, the disabled, and people suffering from chronic illness.
Hadidja Mukandekezi, 38, who is receiving this support from Caritas Rwanda, told me “I am a single mother. I split from my husband when I lived in Burundi. I am living with HIV but I have access to ARV drugs to treat it here in the camp so I am ok. When I fled Burundi, my health really suffered. It was showing in my skin. My skin was so bad when I came here. Really it has been a big challenge living here. The ARV drugs and the food we have received … have really helped.”
Hadidja also talked about her children: “I have one child living with me in the camp, my 11-year old daughter. She is attending school here and it is good. But I was separated from my other four children. They are teenagers. I have no idea how they are and I worry about them. It is a sorrow for me to be here with only one of my children. I hope that peace returns and we can go back. In the meantime. I hope Caritas continues to support us.”
Another camp resident, Honorata Mbahayimana, 84, told me, “I am a survivor of the conflict in Burundi in the 1980s, but I lost almost all my family in the conflict then. My daughter is living in the camp too. She is badly traumatised by what she went through. I came here just to die, not live, but with the help of Caritas Rwanda I want to live again. I can’t find the words to express my thanks to them. It is like they have provided us with new blood.”
There are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide (UNHCR). This includes 22.5 million refugees (those seeking refuge outside their home country), and 10 million ‘stateless’ people. The majority of the remainder are displaced within their own countries (internally displaced people).
African nations host the highest percentage of displaced people - 30 percent. The Middle East and North Africa region hosts the second highest amount at 26 percent. While Europe hosts 17 percent, the Americas host 16 percent and Asia and Pacific region 11 percent.
On a country basis, Turkey hosts the most displaced people – 2.9 million. Next is Pakistan with 1.4m. Lebanon (which is half the size of Munster) is host to one million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iran and Uganda host just under one million apiece and Ethiopia, which is itself experiencing a severe hunger crisis in its eastern and southern regions, is hosting nearly 800,000 displaced people.
Over half (55 percent) of refugees worldwide come from three countries Syria (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million) and South Sudan (1.4 million).