Burundians reunite with childhood savior, this time as refugees in Rwanda

Maggy Barankitse, who once rescued hundreds of children during Burundi's civil war, has reunited with many of them as adults as they flee to neighboring Rwanda. Refugees can now work in a restaurant opened by Ms. Barankitse in Kigali and run by refugees.

Sala Lewis/Plan International/Reuters
Refugees from Burundi and aid workers fleeing ongoing violence and political tension sail on a boat to reach a ship freighted by the United Nations at the Kagunga landing base in Tanzania, on May 26, 2015. Amid the crisis, thousands of refugees – some of which were children during the country's 12-year civil war – are also fleeing into neighboring Rwanda for safety.

During Burundi's brutal 12-year civil war, Maggy Barankitse set out to rescue as many children as she could. Through her efforts hundreds survived, and many returned to their communities after the war ended in 2005.

But today, with Burundi facing its most serious crisis in more than a decade, thousands of refugees have fled once more, this time to neighboring Rwanda.

Among them are some of the children – now adults – who once lived at her Maison Shalom charity in Burundi, and who are again in need of help.

"It pains me to see them like this," said Ms. Barankitse shedding tears as she hugged refugees at Mahama camp, which lies about 140 kilometers (87 miles) southeast of Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

"Some of the children I cared for who stayed back in Burundi have been killed," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Sometimes, I feel like someone rolling a huge stone up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top, and I wonder if I'm condemned to do this all my life ... but I choose always to be the light in the darkness," she said.

The small and impoverished Central African nation of Burundi has been unstable since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a third term in office that his opponents said was unconstitutional.

The resulting violence has left hundreds dead and forced at least 400,000 people into exile. Around 174,000 of them are in Rwanda, with Mahama camp in Kirehe district hosting 60,000.

About 60 to 80 more people arrive weekly, said Samuel Bigirmana of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. He said the last 200 of Mahama's 19,520 mud-brick houses would soon be occupied.

"Now, this camp is full ... We are negotiating with the government of Rwanda to allocate another camp," said Mr. Bigirmana.

Arlene Nifasha was one of hundreds who arrived at Mahama camp with her two children last November. Her husband stayed behind in Burundi.

"Women from the ruling party kept trying to force me to join them. They threatened that they would slash my neck again if I didn't," Ms. Nifasha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nifasha was just five when, during Burundi's civil war she was hacked with a machete and left for dead.

Barankitse found her, and flew her to Germany for surgery that doctors initially considered hopeless; it saved her life, but left her face and neck severely scarred.

Now, in a refugee camp with a child aged 6 and another just 17 months, Nifasha struggles to get by. But she is hopeful that the skills she will soon be learning at a sewing workshop being organized by Maison Shalom will help.

The steady stream of refugees to Mahama is a concern for camp manager, Murebwayire Goreth, who worries about the shortage of food.

At least five refugees were killed and 20 injured at the Kiziba camp in western Rwanda in February when a protest over a cut in food rations turned violent. The 25 percent cut implemented by UNHCR due to a lack of funding has also caused difficulties at Mahama.

"It is a problem managing the people not eating," said Mr. Goreth, who works for Rwanda's disaster management ministry.

But, he says, responsibility lies with the UN.

"There's little the government can do. It's for the UN."

Two years ago, Barankitse was awarded the inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity in recognition of her work caring for orphans during Burundi's civil war.

"Even the times a child had only five minutes to live, I asked the doctors to let me carry him in my arms and show him love," Barankitse said of those times.

Ironically, in 2015 Barankitse was forced to flee Burundi. Since then she has lived in Rwanda where her charity provides jobs and education for refugees.

Maison Shalom used some of the million-dollar Aurora award proceeds to open the Oasis of Peace restaurant in Kigali. It is run by refugees, and is a place other refugees can learn to cook.

Among those working here is Modeste Nahimana. Another survivor of Burundi's civil war, Ms. Nahimana was just eight when she was badly injured in a machete attack that killed her mother and sisters.

Barankitse took her to Italy for surgery that saved her arms. Today, Nahimana works the counter at the restaurant, taking orders and serving meals to a steady stream of customers, a smile on her face.

"I feel at home here," said Ms. Nahimana, stroking the extensive scars on her two arms.

"Everybody here has their own story."

Maison Shalom is currently building another restaurant – at Mahama camp. Like this one, it will be run by refugees; it will cater for the staff of charities who work at the camp and who currently have to travel miles to eat.

The same building will house a workshop, where refugees can learn to sew.

"I see my children like [Nifasha] and it breaks my heart," said Barankitse as she watched refugees mixing concrete and laying bricks for the new building.

"When will it ever end?"

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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