Briefing by Humanitarian Coordinator for Burundi

Press Briefing - 19991203
"Hope is in short supply in Burundi these days", the Humanitarian Coordinator for Burundi told correspondents this afternoon at a Headquarters press briefing.

The Coordinator, Kathleen Cravero-Kristofferson, was in Burundi until last month, as the Spokesman for the Secretary-General, Fred Eckhard, explained when he introduced her. He said she had left the country after the events of 12 October, when the humanitarian assessment mission that she was leading was attacked, and two United Nations staff members were killed.

Ms. Cravero-Kristofferson said the last time she had been at Headquarters had been nearly a year ago, for the launch of the United Nations country team report, entitled "Choosing Hope". Hope was now in short supply in Burundi, but the United Nations still looked forward to the possibility of bringing relief and peace to the many Burundians who had suffered "incredibly" during the last six years. Today, more than 320,000 of them remained "regrouped", i.e., forcibly relocated, at some 60 sites in Bujumbura, under a policy that might be spreading to other provinces, including Muramvya, adjacent to Bujumbura.

On 1 December, participants in the eighth Arusha Regional Summit on Burundi had expressed their disappointment over the continuing regrouping of Burundians. Since the beginning of the regroupment process on 20 September, that call had been reiterated by United Nations officials -- most recently, she noted, by the Emergency Relief Coordinator a. i. [ad interim] in a meeting yesterday with a Burundian official.

Nonetheless, she said, the United Nations was still trying to bring life-saving measures to people regrouped in Burundi. On 22 November, the World Food Programme (WFP) had made arrangements with World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, CARITAS, and CONCERN to distribute food aid to people in regroupment camps. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had distributed non- food items to 37,000 families forcibly relocated.

Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, the health situation was another cause for serious concern, she went on. There were 34 suspected cases of cholera and only three NGOs currently working in the health sector. The security situation was also not improving. Government officials had reported yesterday that at least 43 people, including 22 civilians, had been killed over the weekend, and attacks had occurred in Kayanza, Bubanza, Bujumbura, Makamba, and Rutana. Until quite recently, at least two of those provinces had been peaceful -- Rutana and Kayanza.

She explained that continued fighting between the army and the rebels had caused hundreds of Burundians to flee to northwestern Tanzania. The WFP had been providing food, and other United Nations agencies had been providing support on the other side of the border. What Burundi was experiencing today was the continued forced relocation of Burundian families and their resultant flight into Tanzania, against a backdrop of one of the worst droughts in recent history in Burundi. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) had predicted that as many as 3 million people might need support because of the drought.

After the tragic events of 12 October [when the two United Nations humanitarian workers had been killed], the United Nations had put in place "Phase IV" security measures in Burundi [which limited the movement of humanitarian groups]. She said that had "greatly hampered" United Nations' operations in that country, but an active effort was under way to allow the resumption of suspended activities. Meanwhile, the United Nations was providing support through local and international NGOs, but that relief was not sufficient.

She said the experience of 12 October had brought home to her that she and her colleagues had been subjected to the same terror inflicted daily on most Burundians. The surviving United Nations staff had fled for their lives, just as Burundians had to do everyday. It had also underscored the importance of continued international support to Burundi during the current period, and the need for the international community to respond fully to the increasing humanitarian needs of Burundians.

An inter-agency mission would likely be sent to Burundi in January, she said. Its objective would be to look at security arrangements and to ascertain whether the United Nations could increase its operations there once again, if the security situation allowed. It would also seek to discuss more joint operations among United Nations agencies and their partner NGOs.

She said other initiatives were under way to bring together the leaders of the major armed opposition groups in one place, sometime in the next two or three months, to talk about a safe quarter for humanitarian work and to ensure that all parties to the Burundian conflict understood the non-partisan nature of humanitarian assistance. Hopefully, such efforts would gain the support of the international community.

'Asked about official follow-up to the 12 October attack, Ms. Cravero- Kristofferson said the Burundian authorities had cooperated fully. The United Nations Security Coordinator had sent a two-person investigation team to Burundi; it had stayed there for 10 days in an attempt to learn all the facts. It had received the full cooperation of the Government, which was conducting its own investigation.

There were many theories regarding "who was waiting for whom" on the morning of 12 October, she added. The United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD) mission had concluded that the definitive answer would probably never be learned. On the basis of that mission, the Government had been advised to fulfil certain conditions to ensure the security of humanitarian workers, before the United Nations could reclassify the security situation, from "Phase IV" to [the less stringent] "Phase III".

Mr. Eckhard added that the Government's investigation had been completed and the Minister of Justice of Burundi was expected to present his report to the Secretary-General in New York on Monday.