Life is bleak for Burundi's refugees

Camp: The people in the tiny central African country worry more about making it through today than the future.

February 13, 2000|By David Snyder

BUSINESS IS bad for Haruna Baptakurera. Sheltered from a spitting rain by a thin roof of dried banana leaves, he looks down on the shimmering waters of Lake Tanganyika and shakes his head when he thinks of the future.

"Sometimes," he said, folding his arms on the metal frame of his antique sewing machine, "I can sit here all day, and nobody comes."

But business is not all that suffers here in Kabezi, a ramshackle camp on the lush slopes above Bujumbura, Burundi. Here, amid crude huts and the smoke of small cooking fires, 37,000 people pass their time digging food from the red soil, many wondering more about today than tomorrow.

I came to Burundi through my work with Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore-based humanitarian organization which has been working in the tiny East African country since 1964. Though CRS had been concentrating its efforts on long-term development in Burundi, the outbreak of civil war in 1993 displaced hundreds of thousands of people and forced the agency to initiate emergency programming throughout much of the country.

The Kabezi camp, and more than 50 others like it, are the latest effort on the part of the government of Burundi to combat rebels who have been fighting to oust the president, Maj. Pierre Buyoya. In August and September, increasingly bold rebel attacks reached the capital city. In response, the government of Burundi rounded up 300,000 people from the hillsides around the city and placed them in "regroupment" camps.

Removing the cover

The government said the move is designed to rid the area of civilians, allowing government troops to more fully engage the rebels groups using the lush hillsides around the city as cover. Also, removing civilians from the countryside deprives rebels of civilian cover from which to stage further attacks.

"The majority of the people want to stay here," said Evariste Mdabamzkereyz, administrator of the Kabezi camp who, along with a soldier, accompanied me throughout my visit to Kabezi. "Because the area around here is insecure."

Few I spoke with in Kabezi gave credence to that claim. The thin shelters on the dirt hillside are clear evidence that few preparations were made for the crush of humanity these camps bear. There are, I was told, 100 latrines for the 37,000 people of Kabezi. Though some in the camp live within sight of their homes and crops, many people told me that they are allowed outside the camp to harvest crops only once each week. "Look into our eyes, and at our bodies," an elderly man in Kabezi said to me. "We are hungry."

And though Africa is a continent long used to suffering in silence, perhaps only in Burundi, a country seemingly inured to shocking statistics, could such a humanitarian crisis pass so little noticed. In addition to the 300,000 Burundians crowding the "regroupment" camps, an estimated 500,000 more, displaced by the civil war, live in camps scattered throughout the country. Neighboring Tanzania is the host to an additional 300,000 refugees. Thus, more than 1 million people have been made homeless, a figure more shocking given that Burundi's entire population is only 6 million people.

But statistics, shocking as they are, mean little to Haruna Baptakurera and the others in Kabezi. A tailor by trade, Baptakurera brought with him to the camp his only means of support -- a pedal-operated sewing machine. And though some small businesses exist in the camps, few people, Baptakurera said, can spare money for tailoring. People, he said, are using their money for food. "We are only allowed out one day a week," Baptakurera said, gesturing toward the hills above the Kabezi camp. "I live seven kilometers from here, so it is very difficult to get home."

Sewing to live

Having lost a foot in a car accident years ago, Baptakurera is unable to tend his family's crops, and is dependant on the income he can raise from sewing to feed his wife and five children, all of whom live with him in the Kabezi camp.

There is much talk, he said, of going home. "We are not happy," Baptakurera said, speaking more confidently when the camp administrator and the soldier wandered briefly away. "[The government] decided to put us in this camp. We ask to go home, but they won't let us."

Having spent four months in the camp, Baptakurera and the adults gathered around him are frustrated, facing a future that is entirely out of their own control -- a frustration compounded by the specter of hunger and the inability to reach crops growing within sight of the camp. "Air," Baptakurera offered at one point. "We have only air."

With black clouds threatening a downpour, I said goodbye to Baptakurera. Thinking back on our conversation, of the need for food and medicine that so many had expressed to me, I asked Baptakurera what the people in Kabezi needed most. He thought for only a moment.

"Peace," he said, glancing off again at the hills above Kabezi.

David Snyder, a Baltimore native, works for Catholic Relief Services' Emergency Response Team. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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