“It’s in our blood to help.” Tanzania Red Cross volunteers answer the call to help Burundian refugees

Publicado: 20 junio 2015 12:45 CET

By Caroline Haga, Finnish Red Cross

Almost overnight, 15,000 Burundi refugees arrived at the tiny village of Kagunga on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. They were fleeing the violence in their country, but were left stranded on the beach.

The masses of refugees were completely unexpected in the rural dwelling. There was not enough food and water for everyone, let alone shelters and sanitation facilities. Much help was needed. Some of the villagers, among them a young man called Haruna Issa, stepped in to offer support right away. When the Tanzania Red Cross Society’s volunteers arrived, he quickly joined them.

When we meet him, Issa has been working tirelessly every day for a month. “As a volunteer we are working 24 hours a day, we have to always be ready,” he says. The volunteers take turns sleeping in a small tent they have erected among refugees. They are only able to wash themselves in the lake after dark.

First aid and good hygiene

Kagunga is a hot and sandy place. One dirt road acts as the market area. There is barely anything to shelter the thousands from the sun. The refugees wait patiently to board the only ferry that can take them to the larger city of Kigoma. Only about one thousand are lucky enough to make the crossing every day.

The situation among the remaining refugees, many of whom have waited for weeks, is difficult. Upon arrival, the Tanzania Red Cross Society began quickly training volunteers, mostly young men, from both Kigoma and Kagunga. Newly-trained teams then began enthusiastically providing first aid, transporting ill people to the medical tents, and promoting good hygiene practices to curb the spread of diseases.

“I was so excited the first day, I just wanted to stay, even if I would have been able to go home,” says Issa animatedly. But during the same day he also learned the severity of the crisis. “I had to carry a dead body which I’d never done before. In the first week, we buried at least five people a day.”

Happy helping others

During our few hours in Kagunga, the first aid team passes us at least four times as they hurriedly carry patients on stretchers to the medical ward. Moving among the many refugees who sit and wait is difficult, but it is evident that the men have done this many times.

Another Red Cross team moves out to the market area to inform both villagers and refugees about good hygiene practices. Haruna Issa grabs a megaphone and stops by women selling food items along the road. He begins explaining how different foods should be stored and how one should always remember to wash one’s hands. Many stop and listen, some ask questions. The villagers and refugees are clearly eager to learn more.    

Issa and his fellow volunteers are determined to continue helping out even after all the refugees have been able to move on towards their final destination; the Nyarugusu refugee camp. There will still be much to clean up. Four young men wearing red crosses smile at us. “We feel happy to help another human being,” Issa says and the others nod. “It’s in our blood.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched an emergency appeal of  1 million Swiss francs to support the Tanzania Red Cross Society as it responds to this unfolding crisis. The appeal aims to assist 20,000 Burundian refugees through the provision of emergency health care, shelter, water and sanitation, and non-food items including basics such as blankets and buckets.