Seeking refuge in UN-run camps, Burundians feel long arm of regime

Nearly 250,000 people have fled Burundi’s political crisis. But neither an international border nor camp boundaries can protect them from pro-regime enforcers.

Kenny Katombe/Reuters
Families wait at a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) centre for Burundi refugees in Uvira to receive food ration and medical attention in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) May 20, 2015. Photo:

Jean-Francois Ntije sits on the ground outside the national refugee agency. A recent arrival from Burundi, he is here to face-off with the head of the agency for the third time. 

His complaint? That neither the Congolese nor the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) have been able to protect Burundian refugees from pro-regime enforcers that, for months, have been coming here to intimidate and attack opponents of President Pierre Nkurunziza. 

Mr. Ntije – not his real name – was attacked after he fled here in late 2015, having taken part in mass protests over the president's controversial bid for a third term. 

“After a few weeks, they tried to kill me,” he says, lifting up his shirt and bandage to reveal a newly-healed stab wound on his ribcage. But when he complained to the UNHCR, he says they told him that they could not provide protection. The UNHCR did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Ntije among nearly 250,000 Burundians who have sought refuge in Tanzania, Rwanda, and the DRC since April 2015, a number that's likely to keep growing as UN-backed peace talks continue to flounder and experts warn of a risk of another civil war. Refugees here in the DRC say they have had run-ins with or observed uniformed Burundian military, fanning a climate of fear among the refugees.

It is a tactic that Charles Nyabenda, a former Burundian legislator, says the ruling party has used since it was a rebel group in the 1990s.  Though reports vary as to whether the perpetrators are Burundian security forces  or Imbonerakure – the youth militia loyal to the ruling party – Mr. Nyabenda says intelligence gathering across the border is standard practice. 

“I know how they work,” he says from Goma, where he fled after falling out with the ruling party. “And they will not stop until they eliminate all opponents-- here and at home.”  

Camp recruitment

Ntije doesn't know which arm of the government's security force came for him. As in Burundi, the perpetrators of violence are difficult to pin down. 

Yolanda Bouka, a regional political and security analyst, says that the infiltration of intelligence agents into Congo is “definitely possible” given the porous nature of regional borders.

“Refugee camps in the Great Lakes Region – Rwanda, DRC, and Tanzania – have historically been used often as bases for collecting intelligence, recruitment, and for launching attacks,” she says, noting claims of harassment and intimidation by refugees and recent NGO and government reports of recruitment activity in the camps for Burundian refugees in Rwanda

Congolese farmers living close to the border told the Monitor they have seen men in Burundian police uniforms crossing the border with increasing frequency since December.

Moving outside the camps

Parsing rumor from fact can be difficult amid the lawlessness of eastern Congo, say observers. Still, “these reports are particularly alarming because it’s a highly militarized zone with little information coming out. These harassments and deaths are hard to track,” says a senior official with an international NGO who was not authorized to speak on the record. The official said she had received unconfirmed reports of Imbonerakure in the camps.

Because they say there is little to protect them, refugees like Ntije have chosen to leave the UNHCR zones  and live on the streets in Goma, eastern Congo’s largest city. 

“It’s not safe for me because of my past as a protester,” he says. His father, once an active member of the ruling party, was murdered in July 2015 after making it known that he opposed the president’s bid for a third term.

Nyabenda, the former government official, says his brother was recently killed by Burundian security forces near the UN camps in Congo. For him, the streets of eastern Congo are a better alternative than what he calls “certain death” at the refugee camp. 

Ntije agrees, especially with little progress in negotiating a peaceful resolution to Burundi's crisis. The African Union said it would send 200 military advisers and human rights observers to Burund's capital, but they will be operating in an environment in which international observers have found it difficult to conduct human rights investigations.

“It’s better here, sleeping on the streets," Ntije says. "In the camp, they told me, ‘You were in jail in Burundi and we know you ran away. Don’t think you are far from the trouble in Burundi.'”

Julia Steers reported this story from The Democratic Republic of Congo with support from The International Women’s Media Foundation.

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