Burundi: A long and silent struggle

Published: 25 February 2013 9:30 CET
  • Tens of thousands of Burundian nationals  fled to Tanzania during the civil war in the early 1990s. The Burundian returnees arrive across the border with Tanzania in convoys of buses and are then registered in transit camps before being resettled. Staff and volunteers from the Burundi Red Cross Society are on hand in the transit camps to welcome the returnees and assist them in rebuilding their new lives.  The Burundi Red Cross are also providing tracing and Restoring Family Links services, particularly for unaccompanied children. Jessica Sallabank/IFRC
  • Tens of thousands of Burundian nationals  fled to Tanzania during the civil war in the early 1990s. The Burundian returnees arrive across the border with Tanzania in convoys of buses and are then registered in transit camps before being resettled. Staff and volunteers from the Burundi Red Cross Society are on hand in the transit camps to welcome the returnees and assist them in rebuilding their new lives.  The Burundi Red Cross are also providing tracing and Restoring Family Links services, particularly for unaccompanied children.  Jessica Sallabank/IFRC
  • Tens of thousands of Burundian nationals  fled to Tanzania during the civil war in the early 1990s. The Burundian returnees arrive across the border with Tanzania in convoys of buses and are then registered in transit camps before being resettled. Staff and volunteers from the Burundi Red Cross Society are on hand in the transit camps to welcome the returnees and assist them in rebuilding their new lives.  The Burundi Red Cross are also providing tracing and Restoring Family Links services, particularly for unaccompanied children. Jessica Sallabank/IFRC
Tens of thousands of Burundian nationals fled to Tanzania during the civil war in the early 1990s. Jessica Sallabank/IFRC

By Andy Channelle, IFRC

There are disasters that happen in an instant; the consequences may last years, but they’re usually immediately obvious. There are also disasters that happen slowly, so the effects accumulate over time but never reach a critical mass that grabs the attention of the world. And then there are disasters that, for a variety of reasons, never make the headlines, but which have an immediate, obvious impact on a community, and then continue, losing none of their potency for those affected.

In 1993 tens of thousands fled the civil war in Burundi to neighbouring countries, including Tanzania, where camps were established to accommodate them until they could return home. Twenty years later, all but one camp has been closed down, sending 35,000 refugees ‘home’ to a country which has changed so much since they last lived there. For those who were born in the camps, it is a home they may have never seen.

While the stress of returning is great, the chaos of transfer between camps and repatriation had serious unintended consequences.

Donatien Nsaguye, 58, is one of the 35,000 former refugees who had left Tanzania at the end of 2012. In his time as a refugee, Donatien travelled through a number of camps with his family, and finally came back to Burundi.

In the final move from Tanzania to the Mabanda transit site in Burundi, he was separated from his wife and five children. “When we came to this side of the border, people ran away in different directions, so it was chaotic,” he said. “I first want to find my family before I settle anywhere. And I’m worried about our safety and security, I need to assess the situation carefully before settling down.”

The story of families separated is a common one, and so teams of volunteers from the Burundi Red Cross Society are in transit camps each day operating tracing and family links services, as well as doing what they can to make people comfortable before they move on.

Anselme Katiyunguruza, Secretary General of the Burundi Red Cross Society said that long-term solutions were needed. “The struggle of returnees will not end once they return to Burundi. We really need to think about how to support these families in their new environment,” he said.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is supporting the Burundi Red Cross Society to provide relief assistance and help returning families to orientate and integrate themselves within host communities. Amidst fear and the feeling of being lost, confused and not belonging, the silent struggles of these families continue on.

The Spanish Red Cross, with support from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), continues to carry out essential programmes in the one remaining refugee camp in Tanzania, providing basic health care, maternal and child health support and nutritional advice to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable are heard and met. The overall programme reached entire camp populations – between 100,000 and 250,000 people - each year from 2005 to 2012.

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