Conditions in Burundian Regroupment Camps Rapidly Deteriorating

Time is running out for the estimated 330,000 people crammed into more than 50 squalid "regroupment" camps near Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi. Last fall, in response to attacks on Tutsi civilians in Bujumbura by Hutu rebels, the Burundian government forced the people into the camps as part of a counter-insurgency strategy. Nationwide, 800,000 Burundians are living in regroupment camps.
Malnutrition rates for children under five have been measured at 17-27% by NGOs working in the camps. As RI reported in November 1999, this situation was anticipated given the difficult access to most camps due to terrain and frequent rebel attacks. Many people had received only one fifteen-day ration of food from the time of regroupment in October until the first of the year. They survived on this ration plus whatever they could glean from their fields during the infrequent occasions when they were permitted to visit them. However, 30-40,000 people are living in camps at high elevations in such difficult terrain that no one from the international community has ever visited them. One can only guess at the conditions in these remote sites.

Health conditions are also deplorable. The camps are a breeding ground for communicable diseases. Dysentery, cholera, and numerous bronchial and upper respiratory conditions are reported. Cases of measles are present,
and an immunization campaign is ongoing, but problems of access and security are hindering support activity. Most appalling, the latrines in many camps are full and permission to dig more has been denied by landowners where the camps are located. With the rains coming, poor sanitary conditions will certainly lead to water contamination and
potential cholera outbreaks.

Malaria has been controlled, but it is only the beginning of the season. Health care professionals fear the possibility of a large outbreak as the rainy season progresses. Given the weakened condition of the population due to malnutrition, stress, and numerous chronic diseases, the potential exists for significant loss of life.

The international community has condemned the regroupment camps and urged Burundi to close them. In response, the Burundian government announced that 11 camps would be closed and, in the latest round of Arusha peace talks, President Pierre Buyoya stated that all the regroupment camps would be closed as soon as all rebel groups agreed to peace talks.

The precipitous dismantling of the camps, however, has its own dangers. Several camps have now been closed, but the international community did not have adequate warning for the relief agencies to prepare to assist people to return home. In the case of the Muramvia camp closure, no notice was given at all.

In some cases, displaced people refused to return to their homes because of fear of the rebels. Others refused because there was nothing left of their homes. Their houses had been pillaged, their tin roofs stolen, and, consequently, the walls had been destroyed by rain. It has been reported that the army has been heavily involved in the pillaging of tin roofing.

Hunger and disease threaten the lives of countless thousands of persons, especially children, in the squalid conditions of the regroupment camps. The very existence of the camps violates the human rights of Burundians. As a senior UN official said: "The security of some of the citizens, particularly in the city, cannot be at the expense, hardship, and indignity
of the large numbers of people who have been put in these camps."

RI, therefore, recommends that:

The Government of Burundi

Move quickly, in consultation with the international community, to dismantle all regroupment camps as soon as possible.

Provide full access by international observers and humanitarian groups to all camps.

Halt any pillaging of regrouped Burundian's houses by army units or whoever is responsible.

Investigate the pillaging of empty homes and prosecute those responsible.

The United Nations and donors

Provide food rations of one month instead of 15 days to residents of accessible regroupment camps to combat growing levels of malnutrition.

Insist on a planned and reasonable timetable for the dismantling of all regroupment camps by the government of Burundi.

Assist returnees from the regroupment camps with an aid package which includes food and shelter materials.

Help negotiate between government and rebels an immediate ceasefire until at least March 15 so that some Burundians can plant crops during the remainder of the planting season.

Contact: Steven Smith or Sayre Nyce
(202) 828-0110 or ri@refintl.org