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Burundi: Dreaming of home

by Rachel Watson

Bubanza, Burundi - The woman lived with six relatives in a cramped rattan hut at the edge of the crowded Nabubu I displacement camp. She spoke quietly of her efforts to grow crops with other women from the site, pointing to a bare patch of land where her family eked out a living from the dusty red earth. Yet her voice was strong when she spoke of her desire to take her children home.

“This is such a poor land. Our children don’t get enough to eat. We just want to be able to go home, build a comfortable house, grow some food and dress our children in nice clothes.”

In Burundi today, around half a million people dream of a distant place they once called home. They might live in displacement camps, hide in the forests or shelter with friends or neighbours, but all of them are truly homeless, displaced by the ongoing civil war.

Refugees within their own homeland

The international community is unsure exactly how many people are internally displaced in Burundi. An estimated six per cent of the population currently lives in displacement sites, according to a November 2000 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Burundi. A further 170,000 are believed to have no permanent home, although this figure is difficult to verify. Many live on the move, forced to flee the fighting and find shelter where they can. These families are unable to cultivate crops or send their children to school. They are also the least likely to receive any humanitarian assistance, because they are so difficult to trace.

Some of these dispersed families had been previously contained by the government in “regroupment camps” in the area around the capital known as Bujumbura Rurale. The government set up these camps at the end of 1999, on security grounds, although this mass evacuation of the local population was more likely carried out to isolate the rebels. Families were forced to leave their homes in war-ravaged districts and crowd into poorly constructed camps where they lived in appalling conditions.

An international outcry over the camps led to their closure in July 2000, but the sites were dismantled hastily - in many cases quite literally overnight - and little was done to protect and assist the camp populations, many of whom would have to return to insecure areas and whose whereabouts is now unknown.

“I wouldn’t say that people have returned to their homes,” Stefano Severes, head of UNHCR in Burundi, told the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children in an interview in October 2000. “They have been dispersed, or they have spontaneously regrouped. The security situation has hampered our ability to go to the field, and most of the information we have is second hand.”

A long civil war

Since its independence in 1962, Burundi has been plagued by inter-ethnic conflict and political power struggles, the legacy of a colonial political strategy which polarised Burundi’s main ethnic groups. In the early seventies, thousands of Tutsis were killed in an attack by Hutu insurgents; reprisals led to the deaths of over 100,000 Hutu. Several thousand Hutu fled to Tanzania, where they remain to this day. The next twenty years saw attacks and counter-attacks by both groups, killing hundreds of thousands of Burundians, mainly Hutu. Thousands more fled across the border to Tanzania, dotting the frontier with refugee camps.

Elections in 1993 were seen as a breakthrough and brought hope of reconciliation. But the first democratically elected President - a Hutu - was assassinated later that year, sparking what people today in Burundi refer to as “the crisis”. The current President, Major Pierre Buyoya, seized power in a military coup in July 1996. His mainly Tutsi government forces are battling for power with Hutu rebels and militia; the fighting has cost thousands of lives and uprooted half a million people from their homes.

The fighting has severely hindered humanitarian efforts to provide assistance, even to those living in fixed displacement sites around the country, despite the courage and dedication of a host of aid workers from international, national and local organisations.

The situation is further compromised by the absence of a focal United Nations agency whose task would be to coordinate IDP protection and assistance in Burundi. The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children found that many agencies recognise that little is being done for the IDP population but not one is willing to step forward to push for more.

Families in refugee camps are unable to send their children to school

This lack of coordination, coupled with security restrictions, means that internally displaced families are not always afforded the level of care and protection given to refugees who flee across an international border to a recognised refugee camp.

Interrupted lives

Greuse has been on the move since fighting broke out in her home commune in Bujumbura Rurale several years ago. Her home was destroyed and she and her family were forced to move to a displacement camp.

“My husband and I were both sick but we had no medicine when we were living in the displacement site,” she recalled. “I was so sick I didn’t even realise my husband had died. When I recovered they told me he had died from typhus. I was four months pregnant with my baby daughter.”

The aptly named Greuse now has seven children of her own and also cares for Crie, a 13-year-old girl whose brothers and sisters all died from dysentery and malnutrition. The family has now moved out of the displacement site into a nearby house provided by a neighbour, but they are still far from home. Without the security of land and the support of relatives, life remains difficult.

“My main problem is providing food for my family,” said Greuse. “My land is very far away. My old neighbours helped me to cultivate my last crop of cassava and I sold it at the market, but now I have nothing at all. My only relatives have been displaced too, but they are in Mayuyi, which is too far for me to reach them.”

As in many war-torn regions, it is women like Greuse who must struggle to support their children and others in need, despite their own great emotional and physical loss. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 40% of families living in displacement camps are headed by women. Many women - like Greuse - look after abandoned or orphaned children in addition to their own offspring.

Pillars of society

Bubanza province lies to the north of Bujumbura, squeezed between a range of forested mountains and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, rebels and government forces launch attacks and counter-attacks along the main routes to the capital. Only a handful of international aid agencies work in this area because the security situation along these access roads remains tense.

In the main town of Bubanza, several women’s organisations are picking up the pieces. They work alone, often unsupported, and reach out to the most vulnerable, including the estimated 9,000 children in this province who have lost their families. One local women’s group, “Parents, Let’s Educate for Burundi”, is setting up a centre for street children on the main street in the town.

Pascasie Sinzinkayo - an example for all women in Burundi

“I found one child in Mpanda (a displacement site) who was seven years old but who looked younger,” said Pascasie Sinzinkayo, a founding member of the group. “He had no brothers or sisters and yet he was called “Bucumi.” which traditionally means ‘Child Number 10’. It was so sad. We are trying to do some investigations to see if there are any surviving relatives who could take him in.”

Groups like this one may be fragmented or underfunded. They may lack skills or expertise. But they represent a determination for change and a hope for Burundi’s future at a time when international agencies have been thwarted by poor overall coordination and general insecurity from reaching the displaced people most at risk These women have all defied Burundi’s culture of conflict by reaching out to those displaced and bewildered by the war: the tiny women’s crop cooperative at the Nabubu displacement site, Greuse bringing up a lost child as her own, Pascasie and her children’s centre.

“Women are the pillars of our society,” said Pascasie. “We just want to be an example to other women in the province, to show them that they could do something similar if they got together.”

With security risks and poor coordination plaguing the international agencies in Burundi, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children believes that local initiatives should be nurtured and encouraged to give some hope to the half million displaced people still at risk, and still in need of protection and assistance.

Rachel Watson works for the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children in New York. She was a member of the Women’s Commission’s October 2000 delegation to Burundi to assess protection and assistance measures for displaced women and children. The report is available in full on the website: www.womenscommission.org

Pictures: Rachel Watson