In cry for world's help, refugees tell of broad political violence in Burundi

Reports from the politically troubled country have dried up, and to the outside world, it appeared the situation was stabilizing. But those who have fled to Tanzania say the violence is getting worse.

© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Nolasque Nduwimana is a history teacher who supported the opposition in Burundi. One night, five men broke into his room and put guns to his head, intending to kill him. He managed to escape when they were distracted by another man.

There appears to be no logic governing who falls victim to the men with the machetes and the guns in Burundi today. They might be opponents or supporters of the ruling party, young men or old women, landowners or the penniless, the well-schooled or the uneducated.  

"What happened to my family has no real reason," says one refugee who escaped recently, giving his name only as Ernest. His parents and three young sisters all died when somebody threw a grenade into their house. Men had come knocking again and again, asking for money that his father did not have in order to pay "membership dues" for the ruling party.

Ernest thinks it was likely a matter of simple extortion, not politics. "It is only injustice. Injustice is all that thrives in my country today," he laments.

A year ago this week, Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi's president, declared that he would run for a third term of office despite a constitutional two-term limit. His announcement, later approved by the courts, sparked street protests, which were followed by deadly security crackdowns.

A ruling party militia, the Imbonerakure, swept the country, hunting down opponents. Anti-presidential armed gangs sprang up. Hundreds died and more than a quarter-million Burundians fled to neighboring countries. Half of them have come to Tanzania.

The flow has slowed since the height of the crisis last May, and reports from Burundi have dried up; independent domestic media have been shuttered and foreign journalists have been denied visas.

To the outside world, it appeared that the situation was stabilizing. But the trickle of refugees who are still managing to escape tell horrifying stories that belie that impression. Their accounts are among the first to emerge from Burundi in recent months.

Narrow escape

Why the thugs came for Nolasque Nduwimana, a history teacher at a girls' Catholic boarding school, was obvious. "Yes, I supported the opposition," he said. "Why should that mean I should be killed?"

His name was on a hit list drawn up by local ruling party officials, Mr. Nduwimana learned. He made up his mind to flee, but wanted to complete marking his students' exams first.

Just before Easter, close to midnight, five men broke into his room, forced him to the floor, pointed machine guns at his head, and were told, "shoot him." At that moment, another teacher distracted them. Nduwimana seized his chance, fleeing barefoot into the night disguised as a priest – "the church is all the militia respect any more," he says – and slipped into Tanzania.

For several days he refused to leave his tent in the refugee camp here, 30 miles from the Burundian border, run by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR,) and Nduwimana is still visibly frightened. This camp is too close to Burundi, he says. He wants to be moved farther away. "People can find me here," he says. His lips tighten.

Abdul Yamuremye, a scrap metal dealer, understands less well why they came for his family. "I am just a businessman, I never wanted to be involved in politics," he says. "Maybe that was the reason: I did not belong to the ruling party."

© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Abdul Yamuremye (2nd from r.) sits in his tent with his wife Hadija Umugure, their 2 children, Najajashi Irumka, Ahisha Kiyatarimira, and their relative Abdalla Nitereka (r.). They fled violence in Burundi after their house had been attacked killing Abdul's two brothers, a friend who stayed with them, and her three children.

Friends had stopped him as he walked to his house in a middle-class suburb of Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, with his wife, Hadija, their six-year-old son, and an infant daughter. Don't go home, they said. Men with guns are there.

The next day he ventured back. In the kitchen he found the body of a friend, killed as she cooked dinner of beans rice and chips. In the sitting room lay her 7-year-old son, machine-gunned alongside Mr. Yamuremye’s two younger brothers as they watched television.

Outside were the bodies of the boy's two sisters, one just turned 10, the other a two-year-old. No one had been spared.

"There had been lots of strange boys around the neighborhood," Yamuremye says. "They looked at me, then they rubbed their hands together like they were pretending to wash clothes. They said ‘we're going to clean you people from this place like this.’ "

'People are dying today'

Yamuremye and his family are now sheltering at the UNHCR camp here; their mental scars are fresh, but the UNHCR and its partners can offer them no more than basic counseling.

"Our donor appeal is so overwhelmingly underfunded that we are only barely able to provide shelter, household items, latrines, and showers, " says Dost Yousafzai, a UNHCR official running the three camps in this district.

The UN says it needs $314 million to cope with the refugees fleeing Burundi. Donors have promised just $46 million.

"With that level of support," Mr. Yousafzai continues, "it's things like counseling support for people who have survived horrific experiences ... which very sadly fall by the wayside."

The need is as pressing as the stories are relentless. Manase Gahungu, a hospital pharmacist imprisoned for three months, says he was tortured repeatedly by men with knives. He eventually escaped after paying guards a $600 bribe.

Sabine, a grandmother who asked that her real name not be published, says she knows her husband was killed because he "spoke up against injustice." She was unable to bury him, she explains, because she had to flee. "I have nightmares the dogs ate his body.”

Few people outside this part of Africa are paying much attention now to such suffering. "The world needs to be closer to the people of Burundi, especially those who are inside the country," says Ernest, the refugee whose family was killed with a grenade. 

© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Manase Gahungu was imprisoned for 3 months and was repeatedly tortured, with men using knives to cut his arm. He eventually escaped after paying guards $600 in bribes.
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