Dateline ACT Burundi Crisis 2/00: Hunger and terror in Burundi's Regroupment Camps

By Dominic Nutt
Bujumbura, Burundi, February 2000

  • "I have been here with my wife and nine children since October last year. I am a plumber by trade, not a rebel," says David, 42.

David lives in one of Burundi's infamous "Regroupment Camps". These camps have been a central part of the Burundian government's strategy in the ongoing civil war with armed rebels in the Central African country. Last year some 350,000 people were forces into such camps.

"Before I was brought here I had a good life," explains David, "I could provide for my family. The day the army came for us, I was going to work at about 5.30 in the morning and the soldiers were waiting for us. They pushed us together, shooting all the time and shouting.

"They told us not to move and held us there, standing all day. We thought we were going to die. They told us, 'Today will be a very bad day for you.' The children were crying and terrified. We were ordered to march by the soldiers who were shooting in the air and beating us with their rifle butts. There were thousands of us and we had nothing more than the clothes we were wearing.

"We were taken to this camp and just left cold and hungry for four days sleeping on the ground."

The move was sudden and the interns - 30,000 on this camp - were not allowed to bring any belongings with them. Five months later, they mill around in rotting, blackened clothes, battered by the baking sun and the afternoon storms.

And everywhere are the soldiers with automatic weapons and sticks. "Some of them rape the women and young girls and many teenage girls are pregnant with the soldiers' babies," says David.

The central-African republic of Burundi has been at war with itself since it wrestled free of the grip of Belgium colonial rule in 1962.

The recent crisis started in 1993 when the democratically-elected Hutu president Ndadaye was killed by renegade Tutsi troops. This was followed by attacks and retaliations between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis.

Children and adults were massacred. Even Hutus married to Tutsis were forced to hand over their spouses, or themselves face the mobs baying for their blood. The killing reached its iconic apogee in the hill village of Kibimba where scores of school children were herded from their classrooms and piled into a small room in a petrol station.

When, by the end of the day, the room was full, it was locked and firewood and petrol thrown in. After the match was applied the murderers waited beneath the window and smashed those who tried to escape over their heads with a hammer.

The killers were, by and large, friends, neighbours and colleagues of their victims. They felt dispossessed, they felt they were the 'have nots' and the Tutsis were the elite, the middle class.

When a Tutsi-led Government took over, Hutu rebels began a campaign to destabilise it through war and terror.

Last year saw a series of attacks on Bujumbura by rebel groups hiding in the wooded hills around the capital. They had rocket launchers and were able to fire into the city with impunity and also entered the city at night attacking police and civilians.

The government, under pressure from its Tutsi-dominated constituency in Bujumbura, clamped down by rounding up 350,000 civilians, mostly Hutus, living in Bujumbura Rurale - the province surrounding the capital and herding them into regroupment camps.

The official justification for this move - and one that sticks in the craw for many of those corralled in the camps - is that the regroupment policy is designed to protect the Hutu civilian population from the rebels.

Another, and perhaps more acurate reason for the move was that the countryside around the city had to be cleared so that anyone caught in the open, outside the camps, could be assumed to be a rebel and risk summary execution. The government also claimed the Hutu population was aiding the rebels, providing them sustenance.

Soldiers patrol the camps with guns and sticks and the air of intimidation is palpable. It is clear that the inhabitants are not allowed to talk about their experiences to outsiders.

Scores die each day from malnutrition and disease - including cholera. Beds in feeding and health clinics are more than twice over-subscribed and the numbers of sick and dying are rising. The government cannot - or will not - feed the camp population, leaving it to aid agencies.

But most of the camps are inaccessible or in dangerous rebel-held areas. Many aid workers have been ambushed and killed. Some NGO staff has received death threats.

Nelson Mandela, leading the Burundi peace talks in Arusha, has spoken out against the clear abuse of human rights perpetrated in the camps. There have been reports of soldiers shooting those attempting to get back to their fields to harvest crops.

Rebels also kill and rob the defenceless population. They are caught in the middle with nowhere to turn.

According to one witness, troops who went to his former village stole roofing sheets from their houses and sold them in Bujumbura. "They returned drunk and were ambushed by the rebels who killed 17 of the soldiers. The next day soldiers in Rusibo camp shot 17 young men in retaliation."

The government has pledged to start closing the camps. But one high-level government source said it was a political move and that people could afford to be sceptical.

"People could be moved from these camps to other camps and if they do go home what will happen? Their villages and fields have been looted," he said. " And even if the government started today, I believe it would take a year to dismantle all the camps."

But will the camps, despite their inhumanity, stop the rebels? Many on the camps had no affinity with the guerrillas but now, over and over they affirm that, as they lose their livelihoods and suffer at the hands of the army and the state, they are becoming radicalised and angry.

Meanwhile the rebel attacks in the heart of the province continue - testimony to the inability of the army to wipe them out. Indeed, there are unconfirmed rumours of Rwandese Interhamwe (Hutu militants responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda - ed.) operating in the area .

The panic effect of these rumours on the Tutsi population cannot be overstated.

Nelson Mandela must negotiate a rocky road. Any peace deal must carry with it the rebels operating in the bush. Their leaders can sign what they want but there is no guarantee that all rebels - who often turn to banditry - will lay down their arms for a airy promises on a piece of paper.

Ultimately, peace must come from the inside as well as from without. Nigel Watt, of Christian Aid, is based in Bujumbura working with local churches as members of ACT International. Together they provide substantial assistance to thousands of the civilian victims of the conflict in Burundi. National churches and Christian Aid also run a peace program in the school in Kibimba and were the sponsor of a recent peace march in Bujumbura.

"Thousands of people - mostly young Tutsis and Hutus - turned out," said Mr Watt. "It was great success and we will continue to build the peace movement. The people themselves have to want peace. It cannot be imposed from above."

There is hope. Mediatice Masurugame , 23, is one of the few who escaped the petrol station massacre in Kibimba in 1993 - she climbed out of the window and pretended to be dead after she was smashed over the head with a hammer. She is not alone when she says she does not want retribution.

"Revenge is not a solution. Violence breeds violence and if everyone continues seeking revenge there will be no end to this country's war."

Dominic Nutt is an emergency journalist with ACT member Christian Aid. He has just returned from a visit to Burundi.