Refugee: Escaping Burundi’s political violence

After fleeing violence in his native Burundi, Jean-Pierre is trying to scrape out a living in Rwanda.

The  Mahama refugee camp in south-east Rwanda which plays host to over 27,000 people who have fled a crisis and unrest. [Zoe Flood/Al Jazeera]
The Mahama refugee camp in south-east Rwanda which plays host to over 27,000 people who have fled a crisis and unrest. [Zoe Flood/Al Jazeera]

Rwanda, Mahama refugee camp – It was early May and Jean-Pierre was pushing his motorbike home when two men who had been following him on another bike pulled out a weapon.

“I was almost at the house when they started shooting,” he said, eyes lowered.

“My wife was outside and we all started running into the nearby forest. But they shot our askari [guard] in the leg, and then they shot her.”

“I just kept on running and running.

“Until I got here, I didn’t stop running.”

When he reached Rwanda after two days on the road, Jean-Pierre called family and friends back at his home near Burundi’s second city of Gitega to find out what had happened.

“They told me that she [wife] died,” he said. “I think the men were Imbonerakure.”

A teenager sits on high ground in the Mahama refugee camp in southeast Rwanda. He fled eastern Burundi in April with his uncle after hearing that “war” was coming. Over half of the camp’s population is under 18, and nearly 1,000 children arrived without their parents. [Zoe Flood/Al Jazeera]

The much-feared Imbonerakure are the youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party.

Burundi’s current political crisis unfurled in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to stand for a third term in office, a move that opponents say is unconstitutional.

Many at the Mahama camp say that the Imbonerakure has intimidated and attacked opposition supporters both this year and before, charges the government strongly denies.

But for Jean-Pierre, who travelled overland to the Bugesera reception centre in western Rwanda before being taken to the Mahama refugee camp near the Tanzanian border, the pain is very real.


in the leg, and then they shot her.” “]

A tall and slender man, he breaks into a grin easily, but his smile disappears quickly as he returns to telling his story.

“We hadn’t had any children yet and my father and mother died in the last war, so I am here all alone,” he said, describing his situation.

As one of the many single men in the camp, he has had to share a tent with nine other single men.

Hoping to supplement the monthly food ration given to the 27,000-plus refugees at the camp, Jean-Pierre had just the previous day opened a small stall between some of the white tents spread across several hillsides.

He was busy hanging up his wares in the early morning – soap, and small portions of salt and dried fish in plastic bags, displayed on a stand made of sticks that he found lying around the camp.

“I changed some Burundian francs that I had and bought some supplies from a nearby village. I hope that I can make up to 5,000 Rwandan francs a day [about $7],” he said brightly.

A group of inhabitants of the Mahama refugee camp divide up their monthly food ration between different families. [Zoe Flood/Al Jazeera]

But when asked how much he had made on his first day of trading, gloom descended.

“Nothing,” he said. “It wasn’t a good day.”

For Jean-Pierre, his ordeal in Burundi began some time ago. He says that he was put in prison in 2013, and held without charge for several days.

“I think it was because I used to host party meetings at my house, just small groups of us”, he said.

Jean-Pierre says he was a member of an opposition party, the Mouvement pour la Solidarite et la Democratie (MSD).

Civil society activists have claimed that the MSD’s membership has been targeted in recent years.

Last year the party was temporarily suspended after the government alleged that its leader had incited violence.

For now Jean-Pierre can’t imagine returning home. He trained and worked as a nurse in Burundi, but doesn’t feel ready yet to offer his skills in the camp itself.

“I am just too disturbed by everything that has happened,” he said quietly. “Perhaps later I will, but now I just can’t.”

*Jean-Pierre’s name has been changed to protect his identity. 

 Follow Zoe Flood on Twitter: @zoe_flood 

Source: Al Jazeera


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