Refugees Face Uncertain Future Back Home in Burundi

He man, dressed fastidiously even in these dusty conditions, says he was always religious, but his faith in God has increased. He says nothing else can protect him now.

If anyone was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, it is this former Burundi civil servant and other Hutu civilians who have nowhere left to hide.

The man - who asked to remain unnamed - fled to Uvira in Zaire two years ago to escape ethnic pogroms against Hutus by Tutsi authorities. Around Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, entire neighborhoods were cleansed of Hutus and left ghost towns with abandoned homes. Uvira became a sort of haven for 100,000 Hutu rebels, politicians, and ordinary folk who felt their homeland was no longer safe for people like them.

But the former civil servant and others decided to reverse their steps after Zairean Tutsi rebels took Uvira six weeks ago. They say rebels came in the night and took away Burundi Hutu men who never returned -- and they feared they were next.

"They disappeared - from the markets, the houses, and the roads," he says. "I didn't want to disappear. So I took my chances and came back home."

Now the man sits with 800 other civilians in this refugee camp, waiting to be transferred to villages in the interior, where the Army is trying to wipe out rebel Hutu pockets.

Only the Bible which he clutches under his right arm will give him protection against an uncertain fate, he says. "No one can guarantee my safety once they send me home."

About 20,000 refugees came to Gatumba. Others fled to the hills south of the city or went north to Cibitoke. Refugees here say the richer ones went on to Tanzania.

On Tuesday international aid organizations were allowed to visit Uvira for the first time since their offices were looted Oct. 22. They reported that Uvira was calm, the markets reopened, and hospital functioning.

Until now, few journalists have been allowed to cross the border; Burundi soldiers stop them at the frontier gate, saying that, in the name of safety, they can not let anyone cross.

Officials at the refugee camp say many returnees speak of the stench of rotting bodies in the no man's land along Lake Tanganyika's shore between Uvira and Gatumba.

Rwanda's Tutsi-led Army lent military support to the Zairean rebels, but aid workers and diplomats say there is no solid evidence to back up suspicions that the Burundi government provided similar help.

What is clear, however, is that the town of Uvira fell easily to become the latest piece of expanding Tutsi territory in the region. "It was like a wind blowing. Within hours the Zairean soldiers just ran away," says one man who crossed over with his family of eight to Gatumba. "They didn't even shout."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.