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'If They See Me Alive, They'll Kill Me': Burundi Refugees Filling Up Camps Across the Border

Around 150,000 people have fled the small East African country of Burundi in past months to escape growing political turmoil, intimidation, and violent repression.

by Kimya Zahedi and Daniel Gold
Jul 11 2015, 1:02pm

Photo via VICE News

John remembers the night two years ago when his father was killed and a machete was plunged into his own stomach. Members of the Imbonerakure, the Burundian ruling party's youth wing, forced their way into the family's home in the Burundian capital city of Bujumbura and attacked him, he told VICE News.

Left for dead, John survived the night and was able to receive hospital treatment in the morning. He now bears a six-inch scar on his abdomen. John says the only reason his family was attacked is because his father was a member of an opposition party.

John, who asked that his full name not be used, is among the 150,000 people who have fled the small East African country of Burundi in past months to escape the growing political turmoil, intimidation, and violent repression currently taking place in his homeland.

Burundi has been engulfed in political unrest since April 26, when President Pierre Nkurunziza and the ruling CNDD-FDD party announced that Nkurunziza would run for what many criticize as an unconstitutional third term as president. The political maneuver sparked violent clashes between Nkurunziza supporters and those opposed to his current candidacy, triggering a wave of government-sponsored repression and intimidation that has left many fearing for their lives.

Related: Fleeing to Rwanda: Burundi On The Brink (Dispatch 1)

Nkurunziza and his CNDD-FDD party have maintained a stronghold in government since 2005, when, following a bloody 12-year civil war, parliament unanimously appointed him president. Since being re-elected in 2010 in an election boycotted by most of the opposition parties, he and his party have consolidated power by repressing opposition, curbing press freedoms, and expanding central powers. With the April announcement of Nkurunziza's third term candidacy, protestors took to the street.

The controversial presidential election has been delayed and is now tentatively scheduled for July 15. Factions of the Imbonerakure youth organization have taken on the role of a pro-government militia, intimidating and using violence against those suspected of being unsupportive of the president's third term. Despite the CNDD-FDD party's claims that the Imbonerakure is nothing more than a coalition of its younger members, civilians, journalists, aid workers, and diplomats alike have described the factions of the group as being armed and overseen by the government to carry out its extrajudicial repressive activities.

'They say killing is not the problem. They say by killing they are removing the problem.'

Though targeted killings and attacks on opposition figures have been prevalent for years, the crackdown on opposition has grown more aggressive since May, when a failed coup attempt by an army general spun the country into deeper unrest. That is when John decided to flee to the Mahama refugee camp in neighboring Rwanda, where he shares a tent with nine other young men today.

John's story is not uncommon. Almost 60,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring Rwanda in recent months, mostly due to fear of persecution. The Mahama camp is only 10 weeks old and already has nearly 30,000 residents living in the UNHCR-issued white tents that are quickly filling the arid landscape. Hundreds more arrive every day.

Jeff Drumtra, the external relations officer for UNHCR, which oversees the sprawling camp, told VICE News that many refugees have reported that "messages were posted on the doors of their homes saying that their time was short, that they were known to be opponents of the government, and that they either had to fall in line, or be dealt with."

Related: Meet the Poet Who Fled for Her Life After Protesting Against Burundi's President

"They say killing is not the problem," Joseph, a young man who shares a tent with John at the Mahama camp, said of the Imbonerakure, who tried to recruit him back in Burundi. "They say by killing they are removing the problem."

The Imbonerakure, which means "those who see far" in the local Kirundi language, often know their intended victims personally. "Some of them are our neighbors, some of them are our friends," said Joseph, who asked that his real name not be used out of safety concerns. "If you are not in the same political party, you are in a dangerous situation."

The political turmoil and resulting displacement crisis leading up to the July 15 election threaten to destroy the fragile peace Burundi has maintained since its ethnic-based civil war between the two most populous ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, ended in 2005. While the current turmoil is less based on ethnicity and is more a political power grab on the part of Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD, some fear that in order to consolidate power the party may use ethnic identity to align itself with armed militia groups from neighboring Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, which would further destabilize Burundi.

Neighboring countries also risk experiencing a spillover effect, with growing numbers of refugees entering the fragile nations of Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Leaders of the East African Community, a five-nation regional body of which Burundi is a member, recognized these regional threats when they met in Tanzania on Monday and demanded the government disarm the Imbonerakure and postpone the election by two weeks.

In the Mahama camp, people can feel the situation growing more tenuous. Like many of the other camps providing safety for Burundian refugees, the Mahama camp's limited resources are being stretched. Residents complain that food is growing scarcer and that new arrivals have to stay in massive tents until construction plans are carried out to double the camp's capacity.

Related: Pro-Government Militia Could Push Burundi 'Over the Edge,' Says UN

According to Drumtra, when the camp first opened they hoped it would only serve as temporary shelter for a few weeks while the political crisis was resolved. That hope, however, has faded, and plans are now being made for more permanent accommodations. "There's no indication of a political solution in Burundi," he told VICE News. "And even if there were a political solution tomorrow, people are so afraid and intimidated, they tell us they have no intention of going home just because there's something on paper saying it's been settled."

For John and many other Burundian refugees, however, the situation is simple. He doesn't plan on returning to Burundi anytime soon. "My enemies are alive. If they see me alive, they'll kill me," he said. "That's why I'm not ready to go back to my country."

Watch the VICE News dispatch, Inside a Bujumbura Opposition Stronghold: Burundi on the Brink: