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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
30 March 2006

BURUNDI: Drought drives thousands back to refugee life

KIBONDO, TANZANIA, 30 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - In a small locality of Kibondo District in northwestern Tanzania, a mere two-hour drive from the border with Burundi, is a temporary camp called Nyakimonomono, which hosts at least 7,000 Burundian refugees who have fled a food crisis in their country.

The congestion is striking. Every inch of the camp is packed with people - mainly children running around the place. At least 80 percent of the refugees came from Gisuru, a town in Burundi's eastern province of Ruyigi that has been hit hard by the prevailing drought. Almost everyone at Nyakimonomono had been a refugee once before and had returned to Burundi with the democratic elections in 2005.

"The drought hit, and I had nothing to feed my 10 children," said Leonidas Kananiro, one of the refugees. "I had just returned from the Tanzanian camps after having lived there for four years. I cannot grow anything on my land now; it has not been tended to since I left. It's practically a desert now."

Kananiro was sitting on his makeshift bed in one of the tents. His family is among the lucky ones who fled with a small mattress. Most of the refugees sleep on wild grass that they hang out to dry during the day.

Marcellina Ntakiyica, a single mother, came to the camp to save her children from starvation. Her youngest, who is three years old, is being treated at the health centre. It often rains heavily in this region of Tanzania, increasing the risk of disease. Many of the children are coughing.

"I had just returned home when the drought hit," she said. "I had absolutely nothing. No harvest to look forward to and no food assistance. I had been away for nine years and could not cope on my own."

Arrival of first wave of refugees

The first wave of refugees fleeing the drought in Burundi's Kirundo province entered Tanzania in May 2005. An estimated 200 people were placed in the Mtendeli transit camp in Kirundo and remain there to date. More refugees crossed the border in January 2006, bringing the total number in the Bukiliro, Mugunza and Nyakimonomono way stations to at least 10,000.

Bayisa Wak-Woya, head of the Kibondo sub-office of the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said 70 people enter Tanzania everyday. "The people in these way stations were not seeking asylum in the legal sense," he said. "They came because there is a shortage of food in their villages. The Tanzanian government is accommodating them on humanitarian grounds."

No screening process to decide whether or not to grant the refugees asylum was taking place, and UNHCR was not insisting there be one.

However, some refugees complained that lack of security back home was the main reason for their recent flight. They said they were hoping to be granted asylum because of gross violations of their human rights by both rebels and government authorities in Burundi.

Jeremie Ndimubandi from Butaganzwa in Ruyigi said he was being singled out in a witch-hunt for members of Burundi's remaining rebel group, the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL).

"I fled because I feared for my life," he said. "My friends, all former refugees, were arrested for supposedly being FNL supporters. So, I left the next day because I knew my turn was next."

Wak-Woya said there were genuine asylum seekers among the people staying at the temporary camps, but for the moment, they had not been separated from the drought-affected people. "When food is available on the other side [Burundi], those who are here because of the food shortage will go back,” he said.

Those who fled in genuine fear of persecution probably would not go back, and only then would a screening process begin.

Minister's pledge

Burundi's minister for solidarity, gender and human rights, Francoise Ngendahayo, visited the drought-affected people on 22 March. The deputy minister for home affairs, Bernard Membe; Ruyigi Governor Moise Bucumi; and Makamba Governor Reverien Ndikuriyo accompanied her. The aim of the visit was to reassure the refugees that the Burundian government was doing all it could to organise a full-scale food distribution in the drought-affected provinces. She promised a speedy solution to the food shortages.

"We have in Burundi the same humanitarian agencies that are assisting you in Tanzania," she told the refugees. "So we can offer you food assistance back home in the same manner you are receiving it today."

Governor Moise Bucumi promised to establish a food-distribution centre in Gisuru town, from where the majority of Nyakimonomono refugees come. Still, the visit by the Burundian officials was met with much scepticism and grumbling among the refugees.

"I will gladly go home, but only if the government gives us food, not speeches," Sylvie Maniraho said.

Some of the refugees, like Gerard Ntacombonye, were even downright hostile. "I left [Ruyigi] because I did not want to die," he said. "These are leaders I voted for because I thought they would help me. Foreign aid has arrived, but they buy fancy cars instead and lie that they have given food to the population."



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