Stories from a Burundian refugee camp in flux

While tensions between Rwanda and Burundi continue, a Canadian journalist recounts a different dynamic at one particular Burundian refugee camp, where memories of turmoil have brought people together.

By: /
March 29, 2016
Burundian refugees have fled to neighbouring DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda over the past year. Here, a Burundian refugee child reads a book on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, May 15, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya


Over the past year, thousands of Burundians have fled to neighbouring Rwanda in order to escape political turmoil in their home country. Kylee Pedersen, a Canadian freelance journalist, spent time as an emergency respondent in a Burundian refugee camp in Rwanda, working with Canadian NGO HOPEthiopia, alongside the UNHCR.  

Allegations that the Rwandan government has been recruiting and training Burundian refugees in an attempt to overthrow Burundi’s existing regime caused thousands in Burundi to demonstrate last month. Burundi’s foreign minister said this week that his government plans to take the Rwandan government to court over the matter.

Although tensions run high between the two governments, Pedersen witnessed a much different dynamic while on the ground in Rwanda last year — that of cooperation and compassion between Rwandans and Burundians.

Here she recounts her interviews with Rwandan volunteers, for whom the shadows of the 1994 genocide loom large. (Names of volunteers in this story have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals interviewed.)

It’s 10:36 in the morning on May 6, 2015. There is urgency in the jungle air. Sounds blend together, saturating the atmosphere with confusion. While it is only morning, the heat has already made itself an uncomfortable presence. Red dust from the earth hangs above the ground as it is disturbed and clings to whatever objects move through it. In a small clearing beside a lake in the fertile Rwandan countryside, drooping white tents are visible below the treeline.

On the road leading to the clearing, coach buses are stopped in a row, their idling engines puffing out fuel, ready to depart as soon as their quotas have been met. Crammed into these buses are hundreds of Burundian refugees, waiting to be transported out of the transient refugee camp here at Gashora, in the Bugesera district of Rwanda, to the more permanent and better equipped camp in Mahama, Kirehe District, over an hour’s drive away.

The next day, on May 7, according to PLAN Canada officials, more than 7,000 Burundian refugees were registered at the border camp in Gashora, 5,000 of whom were estimated to be children.

Throughout the summer, the Rwandan camp received on average 100 people a day from Burundi, according to Job Nkulikiyinka, a relief coordinator for African Humanitarian Action.

The current conflict in Burundi began last April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza declared he would be running for a third consecutive term, contrary to the constitutional arrangements outlined in the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. The agreement, signed by the Burundian government, the National Assembly and all existing political parties, states that under no circumstances may a president serve for more than two terms of five years each. In response to the contestation of this constitution by Nkurunziza and his supporters, protests erupted in the capital city of Bujumbura. The protests soon became violent, in correlation with increased activity of the pro-Nkurunziza youth militia group known as the Imbonerakure.

As a result, more than 230,000 Burundians have since fled into the neighbouring states of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. In addition, there have been a number of civilian deaths reported, including the assassination of prominent military general Adolphe Nshimirimana and the shooting of human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. 

Life in the camp

Since the influx of Burundian refugees to Rwanda began last May, a group of from Kigali have been volunteering at the camp at Gashora. For many of the Rwandan workers and volunteers, being at Gashora feels like being transported back in time to the genocide of 1994, where similar societal upheaval and displacement occurred. While being survivors of such hardship is a fate wished upon no one, what happened 21 years ago in Rwanda is serving to connect its people to Burundians now in an exceptional way.

Allan is a 27-year-old member of the Kigali-based mission group Christian Life Assembly (CLA). Since May, CLA has taken volunteers to Gashora once a week to assist in operations there. Allan’s family fled to the Congo during the 1994 genocide, and spending time in Gashora has made him aware of the stark similarities between his own memories and the present experience of thousands of Burundians. “[Being in Gashora] hits me again with the reality that one group of people can cause such chaos,” says Allan. “The refugee camp brings back memories – the cries of hungry babies, the loud desperation of people, and the life conditions in the camp.”

The vulnerabilities of life as a refugee, as Allan points out, are stark and visible in Gashora. Another member of the CLA, 31-year-old Joseph, finds much of his experience volunteering in the camp overwhelming. “Each time I walk into the camp, I can feel its heaviness upon me,” says Joseph. “The heavy sun, the sicknesses, the shortages of food and clothes, the laughing, playing and crying children, the UNHCR and other organizations that are working there – one just can’t shake off the realities.”

The living conditions in the Gashora camp are made worse due to the fact that most Burundians left everything behind when they fled their country. “When you step into the tents of the refugee camp you realize that most of the refugees [in Gashora] literally came with nothing,” says Joseph.

He explains that at night, drops in temperature chill those with no blankets or tents, while during the day the heat is relentless. “The luckiest of [the refugees] have a mattress to sleep on and maybe one change of clothes,” says Joseph. “The majority of refugees sleep on the ground, while a few may manage to gather polythene paper to lay down on at night – it is unbelievable to see.”

According to testimonies of those in Gashora, fleeing Burundi with belongings and supplies is becoming very risky, as youth militia groups in favour of the government crack down on those they see as potential refugees. Burundian refugees in Gashora spoke of the Imbonerakure youth militia as being the most widespread and intimidating group making it increasingly difficult for Burundians to escape.

I tried to talk to as many Burundians as I could, and many of them had the same experiences [of leaving the country],” reports Albert, another CLA volunteer. “[Many] were threatened and in some cases tortured by the youth militia group famously known as the ‘Imbonerakure’.”

Expanding on what his and other CLA volunteers’ roles at Gashora entailed, Albert explained: “As a volunteer I was there to listen to Burundians share their experiences with me, and advocate for them where I [could] to the other officials controlling supplies there.” Another of Albert’s primary roles was to act as an interpreter between the refugees and the aid workers and journalists who frequented the camp. Throughout his time at Gashora, Albert says that he made strong friendships with the refugees he interacted with, many of whom he is still in touch with. 

Finding common ground

The way that Rwandan citizens are offering their services weekly in Gashora through CLA is not a temporary endeavour. “Rwanda and Burundi are linked countries – we have a lot in common,” Allan says. “Our language is almost the same, and we have similar culture. History shows that these two countries used to be one, so in this way Burundians are our brothers and sisters – we are bound by that family tie to help them out during this period of insecurity.”

Michael, 27, is a Rwandan who has been working with the UNHCR since 2012, when he started as a registration officer in Nkamira, a refugee camp set up in north-western Rwanda for Congolese refugees. He has worked intermittently in smaller refugee situations since then, but his longest employment has been at Gashora, where he stayed for six months beginning last May. Michael was six years old and living in Kigali when the 1994 Rwandan genocide occurred, during which he lost most of his family.

“My story is very long and sad and sometimes hard to tell,” says Michael. “My parents and elder brother were killed during this time, and I survived with my sister.” Entering Gashora brings Michael back to a time when he himself was a refugee. “My sister and I were forced to flee during the genocide,” Michael recalls. “We travelled for many days from Kigali to Cyangugu in order to get into the [Democratic Republic of the Congo], where we lived for two months in a Rwandan refugee camp.”

“I think that the life I have had before [Gashora] has prepared me to do what I am doing now,” says Michael. He notes that while receiving and treating refugees can be a very difficult task, due to the physical and emotional state of many of them, he feels as though his life experiences have equipped him with the patience and strength to do so.

“Life in the camps is very horrible,” describes Michael. “Working [as a registration officer] I saw refugees crying because their families had been killed, many people beaten, with wounds, women who had been raped, and many kids who had been separated from their parents. If you have never seen life in the camps, you may have a difficult time doing what you are supposed to do [as a volunteer or worker].”

Albert acknowledges that certain elements of his past also adequately equipped him for what he would experience in Gashora. “Though I was not in Rwanda at the time of the 1994 genocide, I saw people go through [pain], including my very close relatives,” he remembers. “Living with [my relatives] prepared me as a volunteer as I was always looking for ways of how I could help them, and learning how I could talk and relate to them, which is actually exactly what I did in [Gashora].”

Both Albert and Allan point out that during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, many Rwandans fled to Burundi seeking refuge, and that many still remain there. In light of this, he strongly believes that Rwanda has a duty to play a role in assisting the Burundian people at this time. “It would be irresponsible to not help the same people that showed us hospitality when we were in trouble,” says Allan. A great number of Rwandans have gone beyond volunteering in the camps to go as far as opening their homes to incoming refugees. Many Burundians have been shown warm hospitality and have been welcomed into various neighbourhoods within the city of Kigali. 

Different cause, same vulnerability

At a community gathering on May 26 in Kigali, Burundian refugees in attendance were honoured by their Rwandan peers. Multiple Burundians expressed distress about their current situation, and shared with the group how difficult it has been to be completely uprooted and live in a limbo of not knowing when, or if, they will ever be able to return home. Barnabas, a 27-year-old Rwandan, addressed the Burundian members of the group: “We love you, we want to welcome you and give you a community. We know what you are going through – I mean, just look at our history.”

“There are a few similarities [between current events and the 1994 genocide], such as the road blocks, and the displacement of people,” says Albert. “In addition, the Imbonerakure youth group looks a lot like the Interahamwe youth groups which were here [in Rwanda].” Overall however, Albert notes that while some of the effects of the conflict may be the same, the root causes are very different.

Joseph agrees that the major difference between the Burundian conflict and the Rwandan genocide is who is fighting whom. “The Rwandan genocide was solely based on ethnicity, while the Burundian crisis is affecting all regardless of ethnic background,” he explained. “In the Rwandan genocide it was people [who fought] against each other and their neighbours, while in Burundi, it’s the people against the government.”

Allan notes that the uncertainties that come with being a refugee, in terms of food, health and livelihood security, are as present and real to Burundians now as they were to Rwandans in 1994: “The vulnerabilities for a refugee never change despite the [geopolitical] circumstances.”  Therefore, Allan says, regardless of how the Burundian crisis compares to the Rwandan genocide, it deserves an equal amount of attentiveness from the international community.

What now?

Violence in Burundi continues. Ban Ki-moon visited the country last month to further diplomatic solutions and the EU recently suspended financial aid to the country in protest of the Burundian government’s lack of action to end the war.  

However, the Gashora camp is nearly empty now.

After the last major relocation last September, only 550 Burundian refugees remained. While Gashora’s makeshift shelters are now quiet at night, the masses they once held are still in refuge. They, like the people of Rwanda, will have to start new lives without the promise of ever returning home. They, like the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, may open their doors to refugees from another civil unrest in the region two decades from now.  

And while the accusations against the Rwandan government  that Burundian refugees are being trained to fight against the Burundian government  have received much local media attention, Michael, the UNHCR officer, who has now been transferred to another camp called Mahama, said in a recent e-mail correspondence that he does not believe the claims are true. “In the talks that I had with the refugees at Mahama camp I didn’t receive any confirmation or pick up any speculation that training has been occurring in the camp or outside of it,” he said.

And, as many interviewed for this piece will attest, it does not diminish the potential power of cooperation, and learning from the shortcomings of 1994.

“As Rwandans we saw the whole world go quiet and blind about what was happening in our country. If the world had stood [up] perhaps we wouldn’t have lost as many lives as we [did],” says Allan. “[The] reason why we need to talk about this relationship now [is so that] the whole world can rise up and stop whatever is happening [in Burundi] before it gets too late.”

“I still cannot fully comprehend what is really happening in Burundi,” says Albert. “I had really thought that the whole world had learned a lesson from what happened in Rwanda – I thought that no one else would allow their fellow citizens to go through something similar to what happened here.”

As Joseph reflects on his bittersweet experience from the camps, he recognizes that what he is feeling is a burden that too many individuals in this region of Eastern Africa know well. Here, being a refugee is commonplace, it is a part of life. Here, the phrase ‘history repeats itself’ is factually obvious.

Joseph, like the rest of the Rwandan populace, has undergone instances of civil unrest like Burundi multiple times before, and understands better than most members of the international community that the repercussions from the Burundian crisis will stretch indefinitely into the future, especially for its refugees.

“This story is far from over,” he says.