Burundi forcibly expels thousands of Rwandan refugees

News and Press Release
Originally published
(FR) (UNHCR says Rwandan authorities are colluding in the operation) (510)
By Wendy Lubetkin
USIA European Correspondent

GENEVA -- Burundi and Rwandan authorities are colluding to ship thousands of Hutu refugees from a camp inside Burundi back across the border into Rwanda against their will, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

"Since Friday, 5,500 Rwandan refugees from the camp of Kibezi have been expelled by force by the Burundi authorities," UNHCR spokesperson Christiane Berthiaume said in an interview July 22. "It was obviously done in close cooperation with the Rwandan authorities."

The refugees are being jammed "like cattle" onto buses and trucks and dropped off just over the Rwandan border at Butare, where UNHCR has a transit center, Berthiaume said.

"They arrived in very bad shape," she added. None of the refugees were allowed to bring any of their meager possessions from the camp with them. UNHCR has been denied access to Kibezi since Friday.

Separately, July 20, Hutu rebels killed more than 300 people in a camp for displaced Tutsis in central Burundi. UNHCR said it could not provide further information about the massacre, which did not involve refugees and happened in an area of the country where it does not operate.

Hitoashi Misi, UNHCR's representative in Bujumbura, called on Burundi's minister of foreign affairs Saturday to protest the forced expulsions, Berthiaume said.

At a tripartite meeting among UNHCR and Rwandan and Burundi officials last week, Burundi said it hoped to close the camp at Kibezi by the month's end. But Berthiaume said UNHCR was led to understand that the refugees would be moved to another larger camp inside Burundi.

Then on July 19, the Burundi army surrounded the camp and commandeered 21 UNHCR vehicles, which they used to drive a first group of 1,300 people across the border overnight.

The next day the situation worsened, when local Tutsis began looting the camp and beating the refugees with sticks, Berthiaume said.

Kibezi originally had a population of around 12,800. UNHCR estimates that around half of the refugees have fled into the hills, where they are without protection in very hostile territory. The other refugees have been surrounded in a large football field near the camp and are apparently being forced onto private trucks for the transit to Butare.

"There seems to be another convoy on the way, I don't know how many trucks," Berthiaume said. "Rwandan radio this morning was calling for people to put their trucks and cars at the disposal of the authorities to bring back 'our dear brothers.' That again is proof of the close cooperation of the Rwandan authorities."

On Sunday the Burundi army also moved a neighboring camp at Rumovo, causing thousands to flee, Berthiaume said. The agency is being denied access to the camp, but believes that 1,000 refugees have gone to nearby Nagara and another 6,000 have fled into the hills. "We don't know what is happening to the 8,000 refugees who remain in Rumovo,"
she said.