Nduta Camp, Tanzania – A bright purple bus roars into the dusty compound carrying scores of Burundians who have left their country to seek refuge in neighbouring Tanzania. Tit-for-tat attacks between the government and opposition have escalated over the recent post-election months, prompting thousands of people to flee.
Among the new arrivals escaping the daily violence and arriving at Nduta Camp in remote western Tanzania are 18-year-old Fulpence Ndikumwenayo and his cousin, 16-year-old Eliose Kabule. Afraid of being recruited into the Imbonerakure, the violence-prone youth wing of the ruling party, they decided to leave their home and to follow their older brothers across the border.
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Over the past seven months of a crisis sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to run for a third term, thousands of minors have taken risky, unaccompanied journeys because they are afraid to stay in Burundi.
Join them or run
The boys explain how they left in the night after being asked to join the Imbonerakure. It was a two-day bus journey from their rural village in Rumonge Province, in the southwest of the country, to the eastern boundary of Burundi. They felt they had no choice but to leave, says Ndikumwenayo, a high school pupil.
“We were followed home by the Imbonerakure. There were 10 of them carrying sticks and they asked us to join them. We refused, but they continued,” he recalls.
“As we arrived they stopped, but they promised that even if we left they would find us and make us join them. We had to run away like our brothers.”
Staring down at his yellow sandals, Kabule recalls how the group of youngsters set up makeshift road blocks to target suspected opposition supporters in the village of Kilama.
“The Imbonerakure are the soldiers in our village. They stand on the streets beating people with sticks if they think they support the opposition. They don’t care about your tribe, but whether you support the government’s party or not,” Kabule explains.
“We saw them hitting people many times, so we decided to follow many others who have run away because the Imbonerakure come looking for them,” he adds.
Although the Imbonerakure reject allegations that they have committed abuses and claim they are simply a youth wing of the president’s National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy party, the UN has described them as a “militia”. International human rights groups accuse the Imbonerakure of being a key force in the ongoing violence that has killed at least 240 people.
A perilous journey
Carrying little more than a small green rucksack with a faded Arsenal Football Club logo and a plastic bag containing a few belongings, the two cousins tried to escape. But on their way, they say, they were ambushed by people they believe to have been members of the pro-government youth group.
The journey is often a dangerous one – for adults and children alike. Many must walk for days through the forests. Some are attacked and some stopped from leaving.
According to a recently released report by Refugees International, those fleeing the crisis are at times prevented or ”forbidden” from leaving by government soldiers and armed Imbonerakure youths dotted along the country’s porous borders.
“When we arrived from Kayagoro, we got off the bus and had to walk across the border, but we found ourselves surrounded by a gang of Imbonerakure youth,” Ndikumwenayo explains.
“They wanted us to lie down so they could beat us, and as one of them was coming towards me with a big stick, I gave him my phone. After many threats, they eventually let us go.”
But for Ndikumwenayo and Kabule, arriving in Tanzania is only a part of their journey. The cousins don’t know if their brothers ever made it across and still worry about the parents they left behind in Burundi.
They plan to return later to check on their relatives, although they will face difficulty if the crisis escalates and more people are displaced. For now, they hope to search out their siblings, who are aged 17 and 18 and have not communicated with their families since leaving in May.
Of Burundi’s 240,000 externally displaced refugees, thousands are thought to be unaccompanied minors. At least 2,600 unaccompanied minors are at Nyarugusu refugee camp. At Nduta, which opened in October, already more than 400 youths under the age of 18 have arrived without parents or guardians.
Save the Children Tanzania spokeswoman, Ellen Okoedion, told Al Jazeera of the dangers young travellers face.
“Those who take the risk of travelling on their own could come into danger from both armed people and other refugees who try to pass them off as their own children so that they can get better housing here. We are very wary of this and try to act against it,” Okoedion explains.
“When they arrive there are efforts to provide unaccompanied minors with a sense of home so they don’t feel isolated,” she adds.
Looking to the future
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), working in partnership with the International Committee for the Red Cross and Tanzania’s Ministry of Home Affairs, has managed to reunite at least 48 children with their families in the country thus far.
Nduta camp office manager, Roland Triande, says that the UNHCR is also making preparations for another refugee influx which could mean more unaccompanied minors.
“We have managed to link some separated families in the camps, but it’s difficult for those displaced to different countries,” Triande says.
“We are currently building our capacity in different areas so we can take in the majority, who are women and children. In housing we are building 20 more shelters in case of an influx and we will have more facilities for health and spaces for minors,” he explains.
Although the camps expect more arrivals, the two cousins still hope that the crisis in their country will subside so that they can return home.
“Maybe we’ll go back in five years when Nkurunziza said he will step down after this term. He will no longer be president then, so maybe the fighting will stop and we can go home,” they say.
But as the violence continues and the threat of civil war looms, this sprawling camp of tents in the middle of a forest may have to serve as home for many Burundian children for a while yet.
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