Burundi

Famine Threatens Controversial Burundi 'Regroupment' Camps

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Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org
As the February deadline for planting crops passes, thousands of subsistence farmers and peasants remain cramped in overcrowded camps in Burundi. The controversial "regroupment" camps are part of a government initiative to separate civilians from Hutu rebels, who the Tutsi-dominated army has fought since 1993. After harsh criticism from the international community, the government has begun to free some of its sufferng civilians. But humanitarian workers warn that the camps can't be closed soon enough to avoid a famine.

The "regroupment" camps are located in hillsides south of the Burundi capital of Bujumbura. Aid workers have described the conditions of the 57 camps as appalling with many residents, most of them subsistence farmers, suffering from hunger and disease. In most of the camps, which house a total of 350,000 people, farmers are barred from working their nearby plots.

Others are allowed to till their land only three or four times a week. In addition, the military won't allow hungry camp residents to fish on Lake Tanganyika, fearing that fishing boats will be used to ferry rebels from neighboring Congo.

Those farmers who are permitted to work in their fields have abandoned beans and peas, staple crops that normally sustain Burundi throughout the year. Instead, they are planting manioc and sweet potatoes, starchy vegetables that require less tending but also lack protein.

Some camps are even off limits to aid workers, leaving the residents with no means to get food, medical care or clean drinking water. Scores of people confined in the camps, mostly women and children, die each day of malnourishment, dehydration and disease, aid workers say.

The Burundi government has begun to dismantle the camps by sending some 2,000 people home. President Pierre Buyoya announced on Feb. 4 that the government would allow people at 11 of the camps, a total of 52,000 civilians, to return home by the end of March. But some wonder whether or not the government's promise is merely a political ploy to quiet international pressures to close the camps.

The government said it will not disband more camps until security conditions permit - claiming the camps are meant to protect villagers from the civil war between the army and various Hutu rebel groups. Critics say the camps are meant to expose rebels hiding among the civilian population and to prevent civilians from helping the rebels.

The camps have drawn harsh criticism from world leaders, including former South African president Nelson Mandela. The U.N. has called on Burundi to close the squalid camps, calling them a "breach of international humanitarian law."

"The conditions here are clearly unacceptable," Francis Deng, U.N. special representative on internally displaced persons, told Reuters during a visit to Kabezi camp, where around 40,000 people reside in crowded conditions on hillsides south of the Burundi capital of Bujumbura. "Just the sheer concentration of so many people, the needs they have ... It is not sustainable."

Aid workers say that camp residents lack food, medical care and adequate shelter. The residents, herded into the camps in September, live in shacks made of banana leaves and plastic sheeting along the hillsides that surround Bujumbura. Most of the camps are inaccessible by relief workers because they are located in areas where ambushes of outsiders has become common.

Even those who are allowed to leave the camps will need assistance, aid workers say. Many of their homes and fields were destroyed or looted by rebel forces. Many of the farmers are too weak or wary to tend to their land. Almost all of them have suffered five months without adequate food or medical care, while some complain that rebels and soldiers steal from their fields.

Negotiations aimed at bringing peace to Burundi are underway with Mandela serving as a mediator. But optimism that the talks could bring about an end to the conflict have been tempered by complaints by Tutsi parties who have accused Mandela of bias and threatened to pull out of the negotiations.

But even if the war were to end today, aid workers say the situation could take years to improve. In a report by the aid organization Action by Churches Together, a high-level government source said that despite the government move to dismantle the camps, the situation would not likely improve.

"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. "Even if the government started today, I believe it would take a year to dismantle all the camps."

Aid agencies, who have struggled to reach the sick and hungry in Burundi's camps, are gearing up to continue offering humanitarian support long after the camps are fully dismantled. "The most important thing now is for the international community to help these people as they return. It is important to encourage the government and we need assistance to do that," Deng said.

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DisasterRelief
DisasterRelief.org is a unique partnership between the American Red Cross, IBM and CNN dedicated to providing information about disasters and their relief operations worldwide. The three-year-old website is a leading disaster news source and also serves as a conduit for those wishing to donate to disaster relief operations around the globe through the international Red Cross movement. American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. To help the victims of disaster, you may make a secure online credit card donation or call 1-800-HELP NOW (1-800-435-7669) or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Or you may send your donation to your local Red Cross or to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. The American Red Cross is dedicated to helping make families and communities safer at home and around the world. The Red Cross is a volunteer-led humanitarian organization that annually provides almost half the nation's blood supply, trains nearly 12 million people in vital life-saving skills, mobilizes relief to victims in more than 60,000 disasters nationwide, provides direct health services to 2.5 million people, assists international disaster and conflict victims in more than 20 countries, and transmits more than 1.4 million emergency messages to members of the Armed Forces and their families. If you would like information on Red Cross services and programs please contact your local Red Cross. © Copyright, The American National Red Cross. All Rights Reserved.