Returning to Tanzania, again, as a refugee

Publié: 2 juin 2015 9:42 CET

By Caroline Haga, Finnish Red Cross

We meet a man in a dirty yellow shirt on the beach in the tiny village of Kagunga, Tanzania. This has been his home for the past three weeks. “I’m waiting for my name to finally be called,” he sighs. His wish comes true the same afternoon.

The man on the beach is Augustino Ndaezee. He is a refugee from Burundi who, along with 15,000 of his countrymen and women, have fled the ongoing violence to Tanzania and ended up in Kagunga village. For the past weeks, he has been scraping by to ensure that his wife and four children survive.

Kagunga is a small rural dwelling at the shores of Lake Tanganyika with one main dirt road and a narrow strip of beach. Nobody in the village was ready for the thousands of refugees suddenly pouring at the beginning of May. The population tripled almost overnight and there were so many people on the beach and the village that it was almost impossible to move around. There was not enough food and water, let alone shelter or sanitation facilities. The Ndaezee family, for whom it took a full day to reach Kagunga by foot, were stranded there for three weeks.

“It was bad, especially in terms of food,” the father says sadly. “One time I even decided to go back home to Burundi to get us food, but when I got there the road had been blocked.”

Not the first time

What makes the plight of the Ndaezee family even sadder is that they have experienced this before. “This is not our first time in Tanzania,” Augustino Ndaezee tells us. “Our three eldest children were born in the Tabora refugee camp, where we lived between 1997-2012.” The family was only able to stay in their home country for 2.5 years before having to flee again.

In Kagunga, the Burundi refugees are forced to wait because the only way reach a larger city is by boat. There is only one passenger ferry, a former German warship built in 1913 that has already sunk once. It can only hold 600 people at a time. And the return trip to the town of Kigoma takes six hours. With 15,000 people waiting, it was clear that the situation would not get better anytime soon.    

Tanzania Red Cross Society volunteers rushed to help from the very beginning and have been helping out ever since. They did their best to assist the many weak people with first aid, but, unfortunately, at least five people had to be buried each day for the first week. After the Tanzanian government and various aid organizations were able to reach the village, the situation improved significantly. Also, the Ndaezee family received some, if not much, food and water. They then continued their long wait in the heat for their names to finally be called for the ferry.

Receiving good news

When we come to the beach where the wooden fishing boats are being filled with passengers and personal belongings, Augustino Ndaezee anxiously waits outside the makeshift shelter that shields those lucky few whose names have already been called from the scorching sun. Hundreds of people restlessly surround the tent; many more wait further away.

The person holding the precious list with names walks in. Augustino Ndaezee rushes forward with the others and kneels by the man, waving a strip of paper. At last he gets the information he has been hoping for; his family gets to board the ferry. The family of six, with the youngest child carried by the mother Bisimana, hauls their few plastic parcels and bags quickly on one boat and board the other. Augustino Ndaezee helps the older children climb in. When full, the boat sets out towards the ferry further offshore. The happy passengers start singing and clapping, and continue to do so all the way to Kigoma.

Hoping to repair bicycles

“Thank God, I’m so happy. My wife is laughing with happiness,” Augustino Ndaezee says with a huge grin in the dark and crowded bowels of the ferry. His oldest children, boys aged 4, 12, and 14 years, with dust and dirt on their clothes, shyly smile up at us. Their father says they had to leave their school behind. His wife sits smiling on a packed bench holding their youngest boy, one year old Nihemuka Tumsifu, who is quietly looking at all the commotion around them.

They all have dreams for the future. The children hope they will be able to continue their education in the Nyagurusu camp. A farmer in Burundi, their father hopes to continue this work in Tanzania. That, or to begin a business of repairing bicycles.

Finally on their way

The ferry is full with people chatting excitedly and singing both inside and outside. Makeshift bags of different styles and shapes are piled high on the outer deck. When the horn sounds announcing the arrival to Kigoma, the singing intensifies in the setting sun. Once docked, the Ndaezee family joins the others in calmly disembarking the ship, nobody is pushing or shoving. They pass by Tanzanian officials with metal detectors and head towards the buses.

The children are once again helped by their caring father onto the bus. Bisimana smiles as she boards with her baby strapped to her back. They are finally on their way. The first stop will be in Kigoma for registration. The next day they will hopefully get on another bus for the remaining 150 kilometre trip to reach the Nyangurusu refugee camp.

Augustino Ndaezee is looking forward to a better future. He says he is tired of his home country Burundi. “I hope to live in Tanzania forever,” he says wistfully. “Our future is in their hands.”     

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.