"Regrouped" civilians suffer appalling conditions in camps

Over 340,000 mainly Hutu civilians, forcibly displaced since September by the Burundi government, are continuing to live in miserable conditions in hastily constructed "regroupment" sites. There are some 58 such camps in Bujumbura Rural, holding civilians moved by the government ostensibly for their safety, although it is widely claimed that the displacement took place to prevent people from sheltering rebels and to protect the city from rebel attacks. The total number of people displaced as a result of the Burundi government policy of forced regroupment and the civil war which rages in the country now exceeds 800,000.

The regroupment policy, harshly criticised by church and political leaders worldwide, has had grim consequences, including pressing food shortages and looting of the homes of those forcibly displaced. Appalling conditions, characterised by a severe lack of food, health assistance and sanitation facilities, prevail in the camps. Following a recent visit to one camp, NGO workers reported: "There is overcrowding, lack of proper shelter, inadequate and unclean water. Epidemics are likely." Cases of cholera, pneumonia and signs of malnutrition in the children have been reported. "When we arrived here, there was nothing. We had to construct our huts with banana leaves and plastic sheeting distributed by an aid organisation," one man said. "Medicines, latrines, and especially blankets are what we need right now. Here in the hills it is turning cold and rain is falling heavily."

The camps are rigidly controlled by the military which authorises free movement of the people only on specific days and for limited periods. The NGO workers said: "People could be seen leaving the camps in crowds, going down to their houses and returning to the camps in the evening, carrying on their heads pieces of wood, bananas, scraps of metal for their roofs and all they could collect from their land." The displaced people claimed that their homes had been looted, in some cases by the military, and that in the heart of the province, houses were burnt and crops destroyed.

The people held in the camps are not allowed sufficient time to cultivate their fields and to prepare crops for sale in Bujumbura. This has led to a shortage of food on the market, also brought about by drought. The scarcity of crops has led to diminished available stocks, so that prices have shot up.

JRS started assisting in two camps on 28 October, in collaboration with Catholic Relief Service (CRS). World Food Program (WFP) provides beans and manioca flour which JRS distributes (six tonnes daily) while CRS distributes non-food items. Since entry into the camps is denied, JRS distributes food at a point which people from both camps can reach on foot. When there are attacks during the night, JRS is not able to distribute food the following day.

Since the murder of a group of UN workers, including two expatriates, in Rutana province on 12 October, the role played by the UN and most NGOs in alleviating the humanitarian crisis in the regroupment camps has diminished. Due to increased insecurity and threats to the expatriate community, UN operations in Burundi have shifted to "phase four", meaning that UN workers are forbidden to move out of Bujumbura city and that NGOs funded by UN agencies have withdrawn. Only a small number of NGOs and church organisations are working in the camps, which are mostly located in remote and insecure areas. Entry to the camps is restricted and fraught with danger because of the prevalent insecurity. This limited access has led to a scarcity of information about conditions in the camps.

The Burundi government has drawn widespread condemnation for creating "real places of death", as the regroupment camps have been described by the president of the National Bishops Conference of Burundi, Mgr Ntamwana. "It is as though the population has been taken from the hands of the rebels and delivered to other rebels," he said. UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, recently reiterated his opposition to the government's regroupment policy, warning of a "humanitarian catastrophe", a concern echoed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who charged that the policy "violates the civil and political, as well as the economic, social and cultural rights of the affected population". A Burundi government representative told the UN Security Council on 20 January that about 10 camps would be immediately dismantled, insisting however that the camps in Bujumbura Rural province would remain for the time being.

Nelson Mandela, newly appointed as mediator of the Arusha peace talks, described the conditions of thousands of internally displaced people in Burundi as "inhuman and illegal". Speaking on 16 January in Arusha to representatives of the 18 parties in the Burundi conflict, he said of the people in the camps: "Their condition is an indictment against each and everyone of you". Little headway appears to have been made so far in the peace talks which started 18 months ago, although Mandela said progress had been achieved despite difficulties facing the negotiators. The objective of the talks is no mean task to achieve: ending a seven year civil war which has so far claimed at least 200,000 lives. Violence in Burundi intensified last year, especially in Bujumbura Rural province from August onwards. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the "almost perpetual" crossfire between the army and rebel groups, and the rest live in constant fear of rebel attacks and army reprisals. Increased numbers of Burundian refugees are fleeing to Tanzania. In December, a new camp was opened in Tanzania's Kigoma region to cater for hundreds of Burundians arriving daily.

=A9 2000. Jesuit Refugee Service