Burundians flee raging conflict

News and Press Release
Originally published
Many thousands of Burundians have been temporarily forced from their homes by recent fighting between the army and Hutu rebel groups. Some 100,000 people were displaced last month, often moving from hilltop to hilltop in search of safety. Many are women and children. Few have received any aid. Overall, some 500,000 Burundians are internally displaced people (IDPs) living either in 'sites' or throughout the countryside. IDPs have lost a lot in the war, and suffer high levels of malnutrition, disease and HIV/AIDS. Efforts by the government and aid agencies to assist and protect IDPs have been complicated by insecurity, poor access and inadequate funding.
Large numbers newly displaced

Hundreds of thousands of Burundians have been temporarily displaced since mid-2002 by ongoing fighting between the government and two armed Hutu rebel groups. At current rates, an estimated 100,000 people are being displaced each month due to the intensified conflict (UN OCHA 19 Nov 02, p4). The number of IDPs surged in the second part of 2002 and early 2003 particularly in the central province of Gitega and southeastern provinces of Ruyigi, Rutana and Makamba. Bujumbura, the capital, was affected in July 2002 when outlying neighbourhoods were shelled, causing people to flee.

In Gitega province, large numbers have been displaced, often temporarily, due to repeated clashes between the army and Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD). Some 35,000 people fled homes temporarily in September 2002, when government troops massacred 174 civilians at Itaba Commune, Gitega Province (HRW Nov 02, p1, UN OCHA 30 Sept 02 & Ligue Iteka Oct 02). Two months later, over 70,000 people also fled to escape fighting in the province. And in January, almost 60,000 civilians fled fighting into neighbouring hills (AFP 5 Nov 02).

Overall, some 500,000 Burundians remain internally displaced in 'sites' for displaced people and living dispersed throughout the countryside. Some 100,000 people may be dispersed, including those living with friends and relatives after 'regroupment' camps were dismantled in July 2000 and others who fled home communities in recent years (UN OCHA 19 Nov 02, p4). The number of IDPs in sites may have decreased since July 2002, according to preliminary results of a demographic and reproductive health survey by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This study shows a total of 281,052 people displaced in sites, suggesting a decrease of more than 100,000 IDPs. Final results of this survey, however, will be only available in mid-2003 (UNFPA 14 Oct 02).

Clashes and new regroupment

The direct cause of displacement has been clashes between government and rebel forces and chronic insecurity in some areas since 2001. Warring parties seem determined to gain as much territory as possible before negotiating despite raised hopes in December 2002 when the FDD signed a peace agreement with the government. The other main rebel group, the National Liberation Forces (FNL), has still refused to enter into negotiations with the government.

More than 30,000 civilians were reportedly forced from their homes in Ruyigi province from April to June 2002 in a new round of 'regroupment' (UNICEF 31 July 02 & HRW 4 June 02). The government policy of regroupment, which involved forced relocation of Hutu populations into camps guarded by government forces, officially ended in 2000 under international pressure. In 1996 -- 97 and in 1999 -- 2000, the stated aim of regroupment was to ensure security for populations in areas subject to rebel destabilization. But many observers felt its undeclared aims was to deprive rebel forces of local support, and to regain control over territory. Displaced people suffered serious human rights violations during the regroupment process and in camps at the hands of both government and rebel forces (HRW, June 00).

Key figures

  • People internally displaced in Burundi: 487,500
  • People living in 226 displacement sites: 387,469
    (UN OCHA, 19 Nov 02)

  • People living in sites in Makamba province: 105,558
  • People living in sites in Bururi province: 89,307
    (UN OCHA, 31 July 02)

  • People thought to be displaced outside sites: 100,000
  • People temporarily displaced each month: 100,000
    (UN OCHA 19 Nov 02)

  • People, mainly civilians, killed in war since 1993: 300,000
  • Total population of Burundi: 6,800,000
Temporarily displaced, most vulnerable

The most vulnerable people, according to the UN, are large numbers of people temporarily displaced and unable to reach safe areas (UN OCHA 19 Nov 02). Many are reportedly moving from hilltop to hilltop in search of safety. Most of them are women and children, who risk sexual violence or being recruited by armed groups. Many lack basic supplies. As the Gitega Provincial Governor said after the latest wave of IDPs, "These people's predicament is serious because they have moved without food and have no shelter while they face an outbreak of malaria during this rainy season" (AFP 22 Jan 03). Moreover, when they return home, people often find their homes looted or burned down, forcing them into dependence on external assistance (UN OCHA 1 Dec 02).

IDPs, like other civilians, have continued to pay a high price for the conflict in Burundi. The Minister of Human Rights has noted that displaced people suffered widespread violations to the right to life and to physical and moral integrity, usually rape, torture or theft. The minister was speaking during an NRC workshop on the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement held in Bujumbura in October 2001 (NRC 31 Oct 01). The human cost of the conflict has not been reduced since the transitional government was set up (AI 24 June 02).

Children are particularly at risk. Displaced children rarely get the chance to go to school; their parents can rarely afford the school fees, and few of them have benefited from the exemption fee that vulnerable groups are entitled to (IRIN 14 Nov 02). Up to 14,000 children, many of them displaced, have been forcibly conscripted into the civil war in since 1993 (UN OCHA 29 June 01). Rebel groups and the government have all recruited child soldiers, according to a report presented by the UN Secretary General to the UN Security Council in November 2002 (UN SC 26 Nov 02).

Hunger and disease

Displaced people in Burundi continue to suffer higher levels of malnutrition. Despite an overall improvement in food security, malnutrition among IDPs remains high in Burundi, particularly in the provinces of Bujumbura Rural, Cankuzo, Ruigi, Makamba and Rutana (Minagri/FAO/WFP/UNICEF Aug 02). Many IDPs have been unable to tend to their fields, leaving them dependent on international assistance for their livelihoods. Nearly 1.5 million Burundians, mainly IDPs, rely on food assistance, according to the World Food Programme (WFP 20 Sept 02).

IDPs in Burundi are also more likely to get diseases. Some 90% of displacement sites have poor hygienic and environmental conditions, according to the UN. Diseases most identified in sites were malaria (99% of sites), cholera (11%), dysentery (41%), respiratory infections (94%), measles (40%) and typhus (10%)." (UN OCHA 19 Nov 02, p31).

Displaced Burundians also suffer high rates of HIV infection. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of mortality in Burundi and killed some 40,000 in 2000 alone, according to the director of the national AIDS programme. HIV rates are particularly high in IDP sites due to the prevalence of sexual violence and breakdown of family structures (IRIN-CEA, 22 June 2001).

No land for returnees?

An obstacle to durable solutions for IDPs is land scarcity. Parcels allocated to displaced people are often not sufficient to meet their needs, said local observers (NRC, 31 Oct 01). In a country where 85 to 90 per cent of the population lives on subsistence farming, disputes over land have worsened considerably in recent years due to massive population displacement, and to worsening poverty.

Returning refugees have also become displaced due to insecurity. Since March 2002, UNHCR has been 'facilitating, but not promoting' the return of the Burundian refugees from Tanzania who express a desire to go home to comparatively calm northern provinces. Some of these returnees from Tanzania have not been able to return home, and have joined IDPs in established sites, according to recent UN and government reports. (UN OCHA 31 July 02; Robarts, Oddo, Aug 02).

Insecurity, poor funding

Stronger efforts to assist IDPs have been hampered by insecurity, lack of humanitarian access and poor funding. In 2000 and 2001, the UN Representative on IDPs and other UN observers highlighted the need to improve coordination mechanisms to better protect and assist IDPs. A UN inter -- agency mission noted then that most humanitarian agencies focused activities on providing assistance, giving inadequate attention to protecting IDPs. In February 2001, the government and humanitarian agencies formed a consultation framework to promote protection for IDPs. In July 2002, a Thematic Group chaired by the Norwegian Refugee Council was set up to publicise and apply the Guiding Principles on IDPs (UN OCHA 21 July 02). But the displaced are still a long way from receiving adequate protection, due to limited resources and reduced access caused by insecurity (UN OCHA 19 Nov 02).

The capacity of aid agencies to reach displaced people has been severely constrained by insecurity; humanitarian access is only intermittent in 70 per cent of the country. Humanitarian assistance cannot reach people dispersed in the countryside. WFP, for example, was forced to cancel several food distributions in the second part of 2002 due to worsened insecurity. Attacks on humanitarian workers, such as the November 2001 killing of the WHO Representative to Burundi sadly illustrate the obstacles faced by humanitarian workers (UN OCHA, 30 Nov 01).

Donors appear reluctant to provide adequate funding to meet the needs of Burundians. The 2002 UN Consolidated Appeal was only funded at 33 per cent by November 2002. The 2003 Appeal is requesting a little over US$ 69,700,000, for projects that will primarily benefit IDPs and other vulnerable groups (UN OCHA 19 Nov 02). Although US$830 million were pledged for overall reconstruction, including IDP resettlement, at a donor conference in December 2001, most of the funds had not been released by the end of 2002 in the absence of a ceasefire. (UNICEF, 27 Feb 02).

Displacement chronology

2002: Severe displacement from clashes between government and rebel forces, despite hopes for peace following a peace agreement signed between the government and FDD in December.

2001: Displacement continues as two armed rebel groups, the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) and the National Liberation Forces (FNL), continue to fight the government. Power-sharing transitional government established with ethnic Hutus and Tutsis in November.

2000: Regroupment camps dismantled under international pressure and IDPs receive very little assistance during a resettlement process. Peace agreement signed in Arusha on August 28, between 19 parties, including the government of President Pierre Buyoya, opposition parties and armed opposition groups.

1999-2000: Many thousands more Hutu civilians relocated into government camps in second round of regroupment. In September 1999, government forces nearly 350,000 civilians into 53 regroupment camps, mostly in the province of Bujumbura Rural.

1996 - 97: Thousands of mostly Hutu civilians relocated into government camps under regroupment policy. Thousands of Burundian refugees return and became internally displaced following conquest of ex-Zaire by Laurent Kabila.

1994-1996: Largescale displacement as conflict escalates between a new coalition government and Hutu rebel groups.

1993: Violence and massive waves of displacement follow the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, first and only elected president.

1962: Burundi gains independence from Belgium


1. The Global IDP Project, based in Geneva, monitors internal displacement worldwide, as requested by the United Nations in 1998. It is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council, an organization that has assisted refugees worldwide since 1953. For more information about IDPs from conflict in 49 countries, visit our website www.idpproject.org.

2. See full Country Profile on displaced people in Sri Lanka: www.db.idpproject.org/Sites/idpSurvey.nsf/wCountries/Burundi


Burundi researcher: Greta Zeender, Tel: +41 (0)22 799 0700, Email: greta.zeender@nrc.ch

Media contact: Andrew Lawday, Tel: +41 (0)22 799 0703, email: andrew.lawday@nrc.ch.