Time running out for Burundians (with video)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Chattanooga Times Free Press staff writer Perla Trevizo has been on special assignment in Burundi for about two weeks with funding from the Ford Foundation. This is report from a refugee camp in neighboring Tanzania, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled for safety over the years. Watch for Perla's upcoming stories on Burundians who have made their homes in Chattanooga.

MTABILA CAMP, Tanzania - The message was clear: "Let us talk about your return home," Burundi government officials told a crowd of about 2,000 refugees inside Mtabila camp in northwestern Tanzania.

Suddenly a group of people started running. Others followed.

Rumors spread quickly here, and word was that the Burundian and Tanzanian governments and the United Nations refugee agency delegations were there to take the refugees by force.

Pressure to return home is intensifying for about 35,000 Burundian refugees living inside Mtabila Camp, the last one hosting Burundians who fled the civil war of 1993.

The small African nation of Burundi has been roiled by strife on and off for 50 years.

Chattanooga became home to more than a dozen Burundians who fled violence in their homeland in the 1970s. They came to the United States with the belief that family they left behind would be able to join them one day. Yet some still have families in the camp who will have to go back to Burundi, which many refugees say is still unsafe.

"People are still being killed in Burundi and the government doesn't do anything," said Oscar Baravuma, 38, who fled the nation in 1995 after he said his village was burned, people were hacked to death and neighborhoods were divided according to ethnicity.

As of today, Baravuma and thousands of others will no longer have the refugee status that guarantees them aid and protection from international agencies and the possibility of being resettled in a third country. In four months the camp will be closed permanently.

Although talks about closing the camp have been ongoing since at least 2009, the Tanzanian government said this time the decision is definitive.

Frederic Nishajile, the Tanzanian official in charge of the refugees living in Mtabila, said the Burundian government, the United Nations refugee agency and the Tanzanian government agreed in 2009 that there's no need to continue having Burundi refugees in Tanzania.

"The problems that forced them to flee are no longer there," he said in an interview.

The problem, Nishajile said, is that Burundians have become economically dependent.

"For me, I can call them economic refugees," said Nishajile. "They've been in Tanzania for a long time, been given everything - food, health services, water - everything, they've been given for free. They are afraid to start a new life which they've never experienced."

The Tanzanian government doesn't want to use force to remove the refugees, Nishajile said, but when the day comes they will use it if necessary.

"If you are no longer a refugee, you are an illegal immigrant. So if we don't act, we will be taking actions against the laws of immigration," he added.

Refugees will be allowed to continue to repatriate voluntarily until December 31 with the assistance of the United Nations' refugee agency and the International Office for Migration, but after that, he said, "there's no UNHCR, there's no IOM."

More than 2,000 refugees found in continued need of international protection were transferred in July to Nyarugusu, a nearby camp hosting more than 65,000 Congolese refugees and more than 1,000 Burundians who fled in 1972.

But more than 90 percent of the refugee population in Mtabila will have to go back to Burundi, UN officials said.

Still, in the camp women till the land in preparation for farming, others do laundry. Illicit markets and restaurants, where they sell meat from the black goats that roam the refugee camp, continue to operate. Refugees keep living their daily lives as if nothing is going to change.

Decades of strife

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Burundi has been afflicted by civil strife since it gained its independence from Belgium in 1962.

In 1972, more than 150,000 refugees fled to neighboring countries following inter-ethnic massacres. Displacement also occurred on a smaller scale in 1988.

During the civil war in 1993, triggered by the assassination of Burundi's first Hutu president, an additional 400,000 fled, mainly to Tanzania. An additional 880,000 civilians were displaced internally within Burundi at the height of the crisis, according to the U.N.

Many refugees in Mtabila believe Burundi still is not safe. They say they have nowhere to go back to and claim to fear for their lives. No matter what they are told, they refuse to leave their host country.

This has not always been the case.

Since 2002, more than 500,000 Burundians assisted by the U.N. have returned from neighboring countries, the majority of them from Tanzania. But those numbers dwindled in the last several years, from a peak of 95,068 in 2008 to a little more than 4,000 each year in 2010 and 2011, U.N. figures show.

So far this year, 340 refugees have repatriated.

Many refugees in the camp said they are not ready to go and that voluntary repatriation is turning into a forced return. They claim the Tanzanian government and the UN's refugee agency are applying pressure to make them leave.

They are "making life bitter," Baravuma said.

They mentioned the presence of the Tanzanian military, the closing of schools, more restrictions to leave the camp -- where refugees used to seek agricultural work to supplement their livelihoods -- and a reduction in their food ration.

On May 23, three battalions of the Tanzanian National Services moved into the closed zones of Mtabila refugee camp, according to the UN.

The Tanzanian government will use the camp for National Service activity after it closes, primarily for farming, according to Nishajile.

The occupation was supposed to take place after the closure of the camp and the UN has expressed its concern for women and girls, according to a news release.

About the food rations, Sunil Thapa, head of the regional office in Kasulo, Tanzania, about 35 kilometers from the camp, said it has nothing to do with the closure of Mtabila.

"The cut in the food ration is not to squeeze them or to put them in a situation to make a decision. It is purely because the [World Food Program] had some problems in their pipeline," he said while visiting the nearby Nyarugusu camp.

And the closure of the schools was part of the plan to close the camp, he said.

"UNHCR [the UN's refugee agency] will still continue to provide services in the camp as long as the [Tanzanian] government doesn't tell us to stop and to facilitate voluntary repatriation," he added.

'A lot of killings'

TANZANIA AND REFUGEES• Tanzania has dealt with the problem of refugees for many years, even before its independence in the early 1960s. By the mid-1990s, Tanzania was host to more than 1 million Rwandan and Burundian refugees.• In 2007, there were still eight camps in northwestern Tanzania hosting an estimated 340,000 Burundian refugees who fled the civil war of 1993. Mtabila is the only camp left hosting refugees who fled Burundi from 1993 onward.• Since 2002, thousands of refugees have returned spontaneously and also benefited from U.N. repatriation and reintegration assistance in Burundi.• To date, some 35,000 refugees remain in Mtabila camp and have been reluctant to return.• Over the last several years, the United States has resettled more than 8,000 of the refugees who fled Burundi in 1972.Source: U.N. Refugee Agency

Carina Tertsakian, senior researcher in the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said political tensions have overtaken the ethnic tensions in Burundi.

"There have been a lot of killings, particularly in areas around the capital, but they are politically motivated," Tertsakian said.

"There's a deeper problem of impunity and an extremely weak justice system that is underfunded," she said, but added that things are looking better.

"There are quite a number of senior officials who do want to improve things and resolve the justice system," she said.

A delegation from Burundi, Tanzania and the U.N.'s refugee agency continued to emphasize during a recent visit to the camps that Burundi is safe.

"The time to return is now. There's no going back. The decision has been made," Celestin Sindibutume, the chief of the Burundi delegation, told a crowd of about 2,000 - mostly women and children.

During the two-day visit officials answered questions about land, food and what will happen when they return to Burundi.

Land is a word mentioned over and over again by Burundian refugees.

In a country where access to arable land is critical to survival, landlessness is a key marker of vulnerability, according to the UN's refugee agency.

Ninety percent of the population in the landlocked African country is dependent on agriculture. In many cases, the land owned by those who fled has been taken over by the government or by other Burundians, making their return more difficult.

One man, Mpanzi Simon, 73, told the Burundian delegation he fled the country in 1972 and was repatriated in 1993. But four years later he had to flee again because of a land dispute.

"The meetings are good. It's helpful to hear from our officials but I've already decided I'm not going back," he said after the session. "I rather die here than to repatriate."

Going home

photo Mtabila camp

Anicet Nibogora, 29, who opted for voluntary repatriation during the delegation's visit, said he wasn't going back because he thought Burundi was safe, but because the situation at the camp was becoming too stressful.

Nibogora spoke as an International Rescue Committee worker helped him identify his belongings, including a mattress and some stools, before they were loaded in a cargo truck.

A refugee is allowed to pack 50 kilos, and people take everything from doors and windows they've built, to goats and any furniture they've collected. They also get cash assistance of 50,000 Burundian francs, mosquito nets, fabric for women to use as clothing, soap, buckets and tools, among other items.

But when Nibogora reached Burundi the following day, his outlook had changed.

"I'm happy because I'm in my country," he said with a wide smile as he roamed the streets of a busy market in the Mabamba, on the other side of the Tanzanian border. He hadn't set foot in Burundi in almost two decades.

Government officials from both sides are convinced most refugees will agree to go home once they understand there's nothing to fear and that they will help them reintegrate.

"When you start talking to people they are afraid, but we are convinced many of them have understood and expressed their willingness to return home," said Sindibutume, the Burundian official also in charge of repatriation and reintegration.

The UN's refugee agency agrees it's time for the refugees to go back to Burundi.

"I think since now we've gone through a very due diligent interview process and appeal process and I think it's time for the refugees to really take it seriously that it's time to go back home with dignity and safety," said the UN's Thapa.

"They have an equal responsibility to rebuild their nation back home."

Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at 423-757-6578 or ptrevizo@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on twitter.com/Perla_Trevizo or at Facebook.com/Perla.news.

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