Burundi Alert 21 Feb 2000

Peace talks in Arusha aimed at ending Burundi's seven-year civil war recommence today under the mediation of Nelson Mandela. The heads of seven African states - Burundi, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda and Rwanda - together with ministers from the UK and France and the US special envoy for the Grands Lacs were scheduled to convene today for a summit to launch the new round of talks. Until yesterday, the participation of the radical factions of two Hutu groups, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) and the National Liberation Forces (FNL), was still unconfirmed. Mandela, who has insisted that the talks must be "all-inclusive", described this as a severe setback.
Meanwhile, thousands of civilians who left the first regroupment camp shut down by the Burundi government have found themselves without a roof over their heads as their homes have been destroyed. Earlier this month, the Burundi government closed the first of 11 regroupment camps it promised to shut down, following a pledge in January to dismantle, progressively, some of the heavily criticised 58 regroupment sites it set up since September. The government's move coincided with the visit of the UN Secretary-General's Representative on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Francis Deng, to Burundi between 6 and 11 February, where he urged the government to "pursue and implement" the decision to dismantle the camps.

Sources said many people who had been held in the camp which shut down, Maramvya, have found their homes completely looted and destroyed. "People are finding their homes burnt, without roofs, or empty inside as all their belongings have been looted," sources said. Another immediate problem facing the people is a severe lack of food, and the distribution of seeds before the rains start at the end of the month, has been identified as an urgent need. "There is also a need to distribute food (mais, peas) before the seeds are given out because otherwise, the people will eat the seeds," sources said. The population just released from Maramvya camp is regrouping in other locations, fearing attacks during the night. Their fear is fuelled by rebels infiltrating the camps, who are reportedly threatening to launch attacks against the people if they return home, as a show of force.

The government's regroupment policy has had grim consequences, including pressing food shortages and has drawn harsh criticism from church and political leaders world-wide. In early February, the European Union (EU) called on the authorities in Bujumbura to proceed to a speedy dismantling of all the camps. Over 340,000 mainly Hutu civilians, forcibly displaced since September by the Burundi government, live in miserable conditions in the hastily constructed sites. The camps in are holding civilians moved by the government ostensibly for their safety, although it is widely claimed that the displacement took place to prevent people from sheltering rebels and to protect the city from rebel attacks. The total number of people displaced as a result of the Burundi government policy of forced regroupment and the civil war which rages in the country now exceeds 800,000 and over 320,000 live in camps in Tanzania.

Appalling conditions, characterised by a severe lack of food, health assistance and sanitation facilities, prevail in the camps. Following a recent visit to one camp, NGO workers reported: "There is overcrowding, lack of proper shelter, inadequate and unclean water. Epidemics are likely." Cases of cholera, pneumonia and signs of malnutrition in the children have been reported. "When we arrived here, there was nothing. We had to construct our huts with banana leaves and plastic sheeting distributed by an aid organisation," one man said. "Medicines, latrines, and especially blankets are what we need right now. Here in the hills it is turning cold and rain is falling heavily."

The camps are rigidly controlled by the military which authorises free movement of the people only on specific days and for limited periods. The NGO workers said: "People could be seen leaving the camps in crowds, going down to their houses and returning to the camps in the evening, carrying on their heads pieces of wood, bananas, scraps of metal for their roofs and all they could collect from their land."

The people held in the camps are not allowed sufficient time to cultivate their fields and to prepare crops for sale in Bujumbura. This has led to a shortage of food on the market, also brought about by drought. The scarcity of crops has led to diminished available stocks, so that prices have shot up. JRS started assisting in two camps on 28 October, in collaboration with Catholic Relief Service (CRS). World Food Program (WFP) provides beans and manioca flour which JRS distributes (six tonnes daily) while CRS distributes non-food items. Since entry into the camps is denied, JRS distributes food at a point which people from both camps can reach on foot. When there are attacks during the night, JRS is not able to distribute food the following day.

Since the murder of a group of UN workers, including two expatriates, in Rutana province on 12 October, the role played by the UN and most NGOs in alleviating the humanitarian crisis in the regroupment camps has diminished. Due to increased insecurity and threats to the expatriate community, UN operations in Burundi have shifted to "phase four", meaning that UN workers are forbidden to move out of Bujumbura city and that NGOs funded by UN agencies have withdrawn. Only a small number of NGOs and church organisations are working in the camps, which are mostly located in remote and insecure areas. Entry to the camps is restricted and fraught with danger because of the prevalent insecurity. This limited access has led to a scarcity of information about conditions in the camps.

The Burundi government has drawn widespread condemnation for creating "real places of death", as the regroupment camps have been described by the president of the National Bishops Conference of Burundi, Mgr Ntamwana. "It is as though the population has been taken from the hands of the rebels and delivered to other rebels," he said. UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, recently reiterated his opposition to the government's regroupment policy, warning of a "humanitarian catastrophe", a concern echoed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who charged that the policy "violates the civil and political, as well as the economic, social and cultural rights of the affected population".

Mandela described the conditions of thousands of internally displaced people in Burundi as "inhuman and illegal". Speaking on 16 January in Arusha to representatives of the 18 parties in the Burundi conflict, he said of the people in the camps: "Their condition is an indictment against each and everyone of you". Little headway appears to have been made so far in the peace talks which started 18 months ago, although Mandela said progress had been achieved despite difficulties facing the negotiators. The objective of the talks is no mean task to achieve: ending a seven-year civil war which has so far claimed at least 200,000 lives. Violence in Burundi intensified last year, especially in Bujumbura Rural province from August onwards. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the "almost perpetual" crossfire between the army and rebel groups, and the rest live in constant fear of rebel attacks and army reprisals. Increased numbers of Burundian refugees are fleeing to Tanzania. In December, a new camp was opened in Tanzania's Kigoma region to cater for hundreds of Burundians arriving daily.

=A9 2000. Jesuit Refugee Service