Kibondo, Tanzania, February 10, 2000
"This woman says she has a much bigger family than that other woman," translates Benjamin Karegeya. "She wants to know why they both were given the same size cooking pot. Why does she only get two bowls?"
Two bowls. It's not easy to explain to the Burundian refugee mother of five that supplies are now so critically low that two bowls and two cups have become the household ration for new arrivals regardless of family size. Mr. Karegeya works with ACT-Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service (TCRS). As manager of Karago refugee camp in northwestern Tanzania, he finds himself making such explanations all too frequently.
Opened 23 December, Karago's population has gone from zero to 36,000 residents in just over a month. Some refugees say that the army, in its search for rebel militants, harassed them into fleeing their homes. Others report they were forced to leave by the rebels so that they could clear the area for fighting.
On an average, one thousand people have been registered daily flooding into the reception center at Karago. There is little indication this human tide is about to change.
Karago camp is one of five camps in Tanzania's Kibondo District. Lying along the Burundian border, Kibondo has become a key exit point for refugees fleeing increased violence in the eastern region of Burundi. Work on Karago camp began in early 1999 when the districts other camps began filling up. The new camp was planned jointly by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, (UNHCR) and international aid organizations as a contingency site that could accommodate 50,000 people. In mid-1999, refugee influx declined, and voluntary repatriation was underway. Although interest in developing Karago declined, ACT-TCRS with funding from other ACT members continued work establishing a water system.
In one month, Karago has become a blue-roofed village with families sheltering under familiar 4x5 meter blue tarps issued by UNHCR. Some of the earliest arrivals have already constructed mud-and-wattle homes but the neighboring forest can't possible accommodate the entire population's demand for even firewood let alone provide the poles required for home-building.
Food supplies are holding out at present but non-food items, like plates and cooking pots are limited. One blanket is given to each family comprising one or two persons. Families of three to five persons receive two blankets while any family larger than five receives three. ACT-TCRS provided hoes and machetes, as well as donated used clothing, to the earliest arrivals until stocks were depleted. They plan to resume distributing the farm implements as soon as possible to allow newcomers to begin building their homes and cultivating at least some of their own food supplies. Though in the past, livestock were trucked in with their owners, today herds must be sold off at the Tanzanian border, as the camp cannot possibly sustain them.
Water is the critical factor. Camp residents have been forced on ration well below the recommended healthy minimum of 15 liters per person per day. All families regardless of size have been provided with identical water storage buckets. Community water taps are opened only at fixed hours to fill these containers.
ACT-TCRS built a water system that could accommodate 20,000 new arrivals at Karago. The new system included a 150,000-liter water tank and distribution network. The tank is filled by pumping water from nearby Mtendeli camp. To bring Karago up to its capacity of 55,000 persons will require a significant investment in water supply. A second tank is under construction but a new source must be found to fill it. UNHCR made a commitment to pipe water up from the Muhwazi River to fill the tank, however UNHCR has yet to release funding for the piping. At present water bladder tanks supplement the camp's supply. These must be filled by two 15000-liter trucks which make the five kilometer trip to the river some seven or eight times daily. Yesterday one of vehicles suffered a clutch failure and is temporarily out of service.
Tanzanian police screen all new arrivals for weapons. Camp leaders report remarkably little crime considering the density of population living under considerable stress. There have been reports of the area camps being used for Hutu rebel recruitment and for rebel R & R (rest and recuperation). Medical workers in the camps have seen no evidence of battle wounded appearing at their clinics.
Refugees in area camps have admitted confidentially to members of an independent review team that they had been approached by members of their community asking for "tax" contribution. These refugees reported being told that unless they contribute money now, they will be in danger when they return home to Burundi. Such extortion happens far too covertly for camp officials to possibly control, as refugees are understandably hesitant to report being approached.
Since mid-1999, Burundi's Tutsi-led government has forced some 300,000 Hutu civilians, many from around the capital city Bujumbura, into regroupment camps. This was done, according to the government, for the civilians' own protection. In a statement Monday 7 February, the government announced that residents in these camps might return to their homes.
Many fear for their safety if they return home; others fear the government may change its mind and force them to return. However, many of these people have little to return to as their homes were destroyed by rebel or military when they left them behind. All returnees will face a lean season having missed the opportunity to plant in time to catch the season's rains, which began last month.
All these factors could spell a further influx of refugees in the Tanzanian camps. Many Africans both within Burundi and in the East African region express optimism in the new round of peace talks that will begin this month and will be led Nelson Mandela. Perhaps the continent's most respected leader, it is hoped that Mr. Mandela can negotiate a settlement between warring factions and bring stability to Burundi after nearly a decade's violence.
Elaine Eliah is a freelance journalist currently filing stories for ACT International from Tanzania.
Background to the conflict in Burundi:
Eighty-five percent of Burundi's estimated six to seven million people are of Hutu ethnic origin. Fourteen percent are Tutsi. The remaining one- percent are Twa. These ratios were established prior to Burundi's independence and there has been no reliable census in decades.
The ethnic Tutsi ruled the area now called Burundi in kingdoms before colonials arrived. Colonial leaders reinforced the ruling establishment by educated primarily Tutsi and employing them in government and the military. Even during colonial times, educated Hutu began to challenge dominance by the minority ethnic group and the situation worsened after independence in July 1962.
Burundi's first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was arrested by the Army and killed in 1993. Rioting ensued, making it impossible to hold another general election. Parliament elected a second Burundian Hutu president who died in 1994 in a plane crash. The third elected Hutu leader, Sylvestre Ntibantuganya, was overthrown in 1997 in a coup when military leader Pierre Buyoya to power. The Burundian military is predominantly Tutsi.
Despite years of trade embargoes, as well as regional mediations led by the lateTanzanian ex-president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, little progress has been made toward reconciliation. Over the past three years, peace talks have involved regional African leaders including presidents Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Benjamin Mkapa (Tanzania), and Daniel Arap Moi (Kenya).
February 21 will see a new round of talks beginning in the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha. Nelson Mandela will preside over these mediations which are expected to attract representatives from not just Africa, but around the world. What might be perhaps most significant in these new talks is that Hutu rebel leaders previously left out of the mediation process will be invited to attend.
Complicating the situation is the fact that there is more than one rebel group currently fighting against government troops in Burundi. Any Arusha agreement will have to be accepted by all parties involved.
Tanganyika Christian Refugee Service is an operational field program of the Lutheran World Federation and as such a member of the ACT International alliance. TCRS was founded in 1964 to provide humanitarian aid to refugees in what was then known as Tanganyika. For twenty years the group has facilitated the establishment of semi-permanent settlements for refugees of Burundi, Rwanda, and Mozambique.
ACT members in Tanzania and in Burundi assist some of the many people affected so badly by the conflict in Burundi.
Pictures from the camps at Kibondo should be available from the ACT Coordinating Office in a few days.
ACT Web Site address: http://www.act-intl.org
ACT is a worldwide network of churches and related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergency response. The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.