On the Run: A Burundian Refugee Recounts the Flight For His Life After an Attack On His Refugee Camp

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This is the story of Mukiza Noel, a young Burundian man who lived most of his life as a refugee. His parents fled Burundi in April of 1972 to escape massacres and killings targeted at the country's Hutu population. They found safety in Rwanda, where Mukiza -- the fifth of eight children -- was born seven years later.

But after two decades of living in relative peace, trying to rebuild their lives in their adopted country, Mukiza's family had to flee again -- this time from the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that took hundreds of thousands of lives. They set out on foot across the countryside to the Congolese border. For two months, they walked day and night through jungles and wilderness, barefoot, without food, medication, or clean water, braving rain and thunderstorms, and barely staying alive.

Fortunately, the family arrived safely and Mukiza and his brother entered the Rubelizi Refugee Camp in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The family remained split between two overcrowded camps for the next two years.

Then, in 1996, war broke out and spread into the camps. Mukiza, who was 16 years old at the time, was on the run again...

Years later, Mukiza looks back at what he calls a "week of terror" and recounts the heart-wrenching story of his life-and-death escape from the camp...

It was Sunday, Oct. 20, 1996. The gun shots and bombings first started a few miles from our camp. That same afternoon, I saw many Congolese children, women, and men walk down the street across from our camp. They were forced to flee their homes because of the fighting and, as they passed the refugee camp, some of them were accusing us [Burundian refugees] of causing this crisis in their country.

As the day turned into night and the sounds of the fighting grew closer and closer, fear reigned in the camp. Our only hope for protection, UNHCR staff, deserted the camp that night. We were alone -- alone with some 50,000 other refugees.

Even though our camp, called Rubelizi, was already filled beyond capacity, our numbers kept growing as refugees fleeing other camps in the area sought shelter in ours. You see, at the time, the southeastern Congo was home to 11 refugee camps, only two of which had not yet been attacked: Rubelizi and Kajembo, where my parents stayed. That day, I pleaded with my brother to go to our parents' camp, but he insisted on leaving together with our neighbors.

That night, we were afraid to sleep inside our hut. Refugees who escaped from other camps told us horror stories of huts being set on fire and people inside burning to death in their sleep. So we slept in a large group outside, as did many others whose dwellings were close to the camp's entrance. When it started pouring, instead of running back to our huts, we hid from the rain under a plastic sheet that one of my brother's friends brought with him.

Late that night we heard three loud explosions coming from the middle of the camp. Nobody knew where the bombs came from. About half an hour later, someone fired a shot in our direction. It wasn't until the next morning that we learned that the bullet killed a woman carrying a baby on her back. The infant was found alive, crying.

Shortly after the sun came up, people started tuning into the Voice of America broadcast in Kirundi, our only source of news. I was standing with one of my brother's friends near a small group of men huddled around the radio. Fearing that our camp would be raided at any minute, I had packed a bag full of dry corn, peas, some of my clothing, and a mat. I also wrapped an old blanket around my waist, secured it with rope and attached pots, pans, and a can of palm oil to it. I was ready to flee when the time came.

Meanwhile, my brother had barely begun packing his bags, saying that he wasn't feeling well. Just as I started to tell him to hurry up, a sudden loud explosion -- much like the one we heard last night -- drowned the sound of my voice. Everyone jumped. A second explosion followed shortly after, and a third...and then we heard gunshots. Everywhere. People started running in every direction. I grabbed my things, placed the bag of food on my head, and followed my brother's friend's lead.

But with my belongings weighing me down, I couldn't keep up. Bullets were buzzing above my head as I kept running, not knowing where I was headed. Then I heard my brother behind me shouting: "Mukiza, drop the mat!" The heavy mat was slowing me down, so I tossed it along the way, and kept running.

A group of us climbed to the top of a hill from where we could see our camp in the valley down below. When I looked down, I saw men in black uniforms standing in a line facing the camp and shooting. Refugee women, men, and children were scattered everywhere, their cries and shouts muffled by the sounds of guns and bombs.

Then the men in black started to run after us. I scurried down the hill to help a lone child no more than three or four years old trying to climb up. That's when I heard my brother calling out to me again: "Mukiza please do not leave!" I turned around and saw him crouching behind a rock at the top of another hill. He was emptying some of the contents of his bag to reduce the weight. He looked sick and running was becoming harder for him. I waited for him to catch up with me and we ran together to safety.

When we were far enough away from the gunshots and bombs, we stopped running. We needed to clear our heads and think of what to do next. Where to go? We thought about our parents, who had no idea where we were and what we just went through. We had no way of getting in touch with them to let them know that we were safe. Even though I knew that at this point the war had spread to the entire region, I wanted to see our parents no matter the risk.

That afternoon, my brother, who had become very ill by now, and I made our way to our parents' camp. As we entered Kajembo, we were struck by the sheer number of refugees. Most of those who survived the attacks on their camp fled to Kajembo.

Seeing us from a distance, our mother ran towards us crying. Our sisters, also crying, followed her. Kajembo had so far been spared from the raids, but most of the refugees there were preparing to leave. Having heard what happened to us, they knew it was only a matter of time. Our parents had already packed their bags and were waiting for us first before making their escape.

Less than 30 minutes after we got to Kajembo, my sick brother barely having had a chance to rest, we were on the run again.

Mukiza Noel, now 30, spent more than 13 years of his life in refugee camps -- most recently in Tanzania where he met his wife, Aline. Two years ago, he was able to resettle in the United States. He now works as a case manager for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP), helping other refugees begin a new life in America. Fluent in Kirundi and English, he is also the main liaison to Vermont's Burundian population, which includes his mother, father, and siblings. Mukiza's wife is now an interpreter and translator for VRRP and the couple is expecting their first child in April of 2010.

USCRI's Successful Integration of Burundian Refugees Program's staff consulted Mukiza's expertise in the development of the Living in the United States: Life Skills For Burundian Refugees materials, the second volume of which was released this month.

Find out more about Burundian refugees by visiting the Educational Resources section on the Successful Integration of Burundian Refugees Program's website.

Learn more about USCRI's Successful Integration of Burundian Refugees Program here.