Burundians suffer in forgotten conflict

Originally published
Report published on Saturday, November 20, 1999 - The Irish Times
David Begg, Concern Chief executive reports from a camp in Burundi where 15,000 eke out an existence in wretched conditions.

You can smell Ruziba regroupment camp before you see it. Hastily dug shallow latrines fill quickly when used by 15,000 people and you do not have to be a medical person to appreciate the potential for disease they represent.
Ruziba is approached via a narrow dirt track from the main road. It is located close to Lake Tanganyika, about 10 miles south of Bujumbura, the capital of the small central African state of Burundi.

The 15,000 people who live in this hell-hole are not here by choice. The term regroupment is little more than a euphemism. Regroupment is essentially a military solution in which people living in areas subject to systematic destabilisation by rebel activity are required to leave their homes and relocate to camps guarded by armed force.

The purpose of this exercise is to allow the military to conduct operations aimed at flushing out rebel positions and regaining control of the territory. Typically, the civilian population is given a deadline (usually a couple of days) by which they have to make their way to a designated regroupment site. Anyone remaining after the deadline is shot.

The people are given no assistance to relocate, nor is there any preparation of sites to receive them. They must fend for themselves with no help from the authorities.

Conditions in the regroupment camps are wretched. In addition to the trauma of losing homes and livelihoods, the experience of living in a crowed camp is both disorientating and degrading for people accustomed to living in relative seclusion and providing for their own needs.

The utter lack of privacy is one of the most difficult and degrading aspects of site life. In particular, the humiliation women suffer when forced to sleep in a small space with male members of the family is acute in the context of Burundian culture. An UNFPA study carried out in 1998 found that 46 per cent of the women living in sites were victims of acts of physical violence through intimidation and threats, while 11 per cent admitted to being the victims of sexual abuse.

The civil conflict which has riven Burundi since 1993 has elicited scant attention in the West. Eclipsed by the genocide that engulfed its northern neighbour Rwanda, in 1994 the plight of this small, landlocked country is hardly known. Like Rwanda, Burundi is not the result of colonial negotiation but a historic nation-state that has evolved over many centuries.

After centuries of functioning as a feudal kingdom, Burundi was colonised first by Germany in 1899 and then ruled by Belgium under a League of Nations mandate from 1916 until independence in 1962. From 1962 to 1993, Burundi passed through three republics, each one ending through non-constitutional means. The process was also attended by extreme political violence and population displacements.

In June 1993, the first democratic presidential election since independence was held, with Mr Melcihior Ndadaye emerging as the winner. Mr Ndadaye was a member of the majority Hutu population and his election, and the peaceful transition of power to him from his Tutsi predecessor, Major Buyoya, gave rise to great hopes for peace and stability.

They were short lived, however, as President Ndadaye was assassinated on October 21st, 1993. This sparked more ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis and tens of thousands were killed. Hundreds of thousands of others fled to Tanzania and Zaire (now DRC). Political instability and violence continued until July 1996, when Major Buyoya returned to power through a bloodless putsch.

Today Burundi remains a country of immense suffering. Of a total population of six million:

  • One million continue to live away from their homes.
  • Nearly 600,000 are living in over 300 camps inside their own country, constituting one of the largest internally displaced populations in the Great Lakes region of Africa;
  • There are 300,000 Burundian refugees living in neighbouring countries;
  • 91 per cent of those living in camps inside Burundi have no access to drinking water;
  • Every day an average of 40,000 are treated for malnutrition;
  • Since 1993 an estimated 200,000 civilians, have been killed.

    Until his death some weeks ago, former Tanzanian president Mr Julius Nyrere was engaged in trying to mediate a peaceful settlement. His death leaves a vacuum the UN is desperately trying to fill. Its representative, Mr Kevin Prendergast, is touring the region seeking a formula to rekindle the peace process.

    Just four weeks ago the humanitarian relief effort in Burundi was dealt a serious blow by the assassination of two serving UN expatriate officials and seven Burundian staff at a refugee camp near Rutana in the south east of the country. In response the UN imposed a level-four security status, which means that the international staff of the UN and the aid agencies cannot move outside the capital, Bujumbura. This is seriously restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid and will surely worsen the crisis if it continues.

    It was in the context of this worsening situation that I took a personal decision, contrary to the UN position, to visit Ruziba regroupment camp a fortnight ago. Concern has itself had a local staff member shot 12 months ago and we would not in any way wish to take unnecessary risks.

    But against this risk has to be balanced the incredible human suffering which is Burundi today. From my conversations with them, I believe that the entire UN and NGO community in Burundi would wish to see the levelfour security status rescinded so that they can do as much as they can for the people.

    It must also be said that the UN and the NGOs are totally against the policy of regroupment and will engage with this policy only to provide essential humanitarian aid. The policy of regroupment may well bring military success to the Burundian army but it will be at a terrible cost to the Burundian people.

    Author: David Begg
    Phone: 1850 410510
    email: info@concern.ie

    Concern, Upper Camden Street, Dublin 2.