Last Friday the UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the Security Council that Burundi ‘remains on the brink of a sudden escalation of violence to even more massive proportions.’ Here five Burundians, aged between 20 and 35, tell us what they fear.
Burundi’s civil unrest, sparked in April 2015 by President Nkurunziza’s third term push and marked by protests, extrajudicial killings and guerrilla violence, has led to hundreds of deaths and produced hundreds of thousands of refugees across the region. Most are in Tanzania and Rwanda, two of Burundi’s direct neighbours.
While many are crowded in camps near Burundi’s borders, others have decided to flee to regional capitals hoping for a better, safer life. Here are five Burundians, aged between 20 and 35, who fled their country last year, and found refuge in Kigali, Rwanda.
Meet Lionel, Kelly, Serge, Patrick and Pamela (these are not all real names). In some way, they all represent Burundian youth, their dreams and interests, hopes and aspirations.
Shaken by the unrest in their home country, they have tried to shape a new beginning for themselves in Rwanda, some with more success than others. Most complain of the high cost of life compared to their city, Bujumbura, where life was much smoother before the crisis. But they all show remarkable signs of resilience.
Lionel is 29 years old. He fled Burundi last year because of the worsening security and particularly threats to his and his family’s safety. Today, he feels welcomed and safe in Rwanda although he remains worried about the fate of his country.
Lionel explains his departure from Burundi, amid escalating violence in the capital Bujumbura: ‘One day a man called me. He was a police officer. He asked me to come see him urgently at his office. I told my family just in case something might happen to me. Things surprisingly went well. He wanted to let me know that he saw my name on a “hit list” of the intelligence service. This man recognised my last name since he knew my father. And the tragedy in all this is that his son was on the same list. He told me about this completely distressed, and then strongly advised me to flee the country. There are different reasons why I was on this list.
‘When I arrived shortly after fleeing, I remember that someone let me cut the line in a shop because they noticed my Burundian passport. People have sympathy.’
I participated directly or indirectly in some protests. I traveled to Rwanda in June. This cross-border movement can make you a suspect, because of rumours that some young people go to Rwanda to join a rebellion. I wrote a lot on social media, without hiding my opposition to this regime. All these are sufficient reasons to put me at risk, some more than others.’
Lionel definitely feels in security in Rwanda, and is thankful for the welcome the country – and its citizens – gave to Burundians refugees. ‘The support from Rwanda is the best we could hope for as refugees. When I arrived shortly after fleeing, I remember that someone let me cut the line in a shop because they noticed my Burundian passport. People have sympathy. At the administrative level, they also make it easier for us.’ But he concedes that things aren’t necessarily easy here: ‘Life in Rwanda is very calm. We all try to find work to survive but days are usually monotonous. I often spend them browsing social media and reading articles about my country. In fact, Burundi has become my sole preoccupation. There are some small victories when we are able to save an endangered life by creating awareness online. But this can seem trivial considering the large number of deaths. I met some people here who have been tortured but were able to survive. It’s all very difficult to endure. Given these factors, we do not even think about the financial burdens here as refugees in Rwanda; money becomes a secondary issue.’
‘A perfect leader certainly does not exist but we must be demanding. The challenge is huge.’
Lionel is adapting to a new life in Rwanda, making new friends, finding work, while trying to keep links with Bujumbura. ‘What I miss the most about my country is the beautiful Lake Tanganyika. And of course my family. We talk a lot, fear is tangible, but there is courage, too. They resist in their own way like many others there.’ Lionel hopes to see new leaders emerge in Burundi even though he tries to stay realistic: ‘Unfortunately, we do not have many who have the charisma and the necessary skills to elevate our ambitions, unite us beyond the historical divides. We are looking for an ideal leader that is carried by the momentum of the youth in May – June 2015. A perfect leader certainly does not exist but we must be demanding. The challenge is huge.’
Lionel adds, ‘The main fear I have is to see the conflict become ethnic. This would be a victory for this shaky regime. But through my conversations with people still in Bujumbura and beyond, there are reasons to hope. The work of the Catholic church among rural and urban communities is fundamental in order to keep the population mobilised and united against this development.
I think there must be a third, alternative voice. This regime has shown its limits, promoting everything most vile of human nature in Burundian society. A certain fringe of the armed opposition has shown its inaptitude to be in charge. In fact, this is a perfect reproduction on the battlefield of Burundi’s political impasse. Which brings me to say that the only voice going forward should be Arusha [the peace deal which cemented the end of the civil war 15 years ago]. And to defend Arusha, the army will have to take a firm stance, once and for all. We will know sooner or later if the rebel group FOREBU (Republican Force of Burundi) is the ideal framework for all the voices of the army who are supportive of the strict respect of Arusha.’
Lionel’s deep interest in political and development issues is definitely kept alive by the complex events in his country.
Kelly is 26 years old, she fled Burundi last year due to an increasingly uncertain situation, as well as ‘the generally negative climate there, but also because, for our young generation, there is more activity, opportunities and positive challenges in Rwanda.’ Even though she has often visited Rwanda and stayed in Kigali at different occasions, she considered she has moved here permanently now. She knows the country quite well but settling into a new life was a challenge. ‘Life was not easy here at first but once you manage to fit in it is a decent situation, as there is a lot of potential for us young people,’ she says. ‘I finally found a job – that’s definitely a good thing. Life here has a lot of opportunities if you are qualified and determined. The government of Rwanda does good work, and education is also strong, whereas in Burundi that is not necessarily the case.’ Like many other Burundians in Kigali, Kelly is also thankful of Rwanda’s welcoming of refugees: ‘It has been really warm and positive. We didn’t hope for this much. The Minister in charge of refugees wants to build more schools, and water and sanitation is well managed.’
‘I especially fear the situation of the economy, the crisis of course, but also the future for us young people.’
Kelly is happy with her life in Kigali and emphasises the potential for young people to grow and thrive, although she recognises it is not necessarily an easy, smooth integration for all Burundian refugees. She continues to follow news from her country carefully. ‘I especially fear the situation of the economy, the crisis of course, but also the future for us young people. What is happening is very unfortunate and really scary for the years to come.’ She really hopes she could go back to Burundi as often as she wished, and reunite again with the weather, the beach, the atmosphere, her family… ‘everything basically,’ she says.
Serge and Patrick, respectively 26 and 27, are both strongly opposed to the Burundian government and have been vocal on different social-media platforms against the third term and for the respect of the Arusha peace agreement, which cemented the end of the civil war 15 years ago. They are also refugees in Kigali since the middle of last year. ‘Life here isn’t easy really, especially when you are out of work. If you don’t meet any fellow Burundians to discuss our problems, share and empathise, life is hard. Rwandans can be welcoming, but don’t really care about our financial troubles. Burundians help each other out much more.’ But at the country level, the situation is more nuanced says Serge. ‘Rwandans and Burundians are like a family, twin countries, so the government here wants to help us even if it can be difficult in daily life, at the interpersonal level.’ Serge argues that Rwanda has done much more for Burundian refugees than he originally thought or hoped for. Patrick adds, ‘I heard they will even accept our diplomas here, and adapt them to the Rwandan system so that it will be easier to continue our studies or find work. Even though this is not yet confirmed, it is encouraging.’
‘What I miss the most about by country is the feeling of home, simply put,’ says Serge. ‘My friends, my family, the bars, etc.’
Serge says the main reason for their departure is the security situation. ‘It was way too risky for us, especially as young men.’ Patrick adds: ‘Even though it did not happen to me personally, I have friends who were physically attacked. Youth are targeted; the government says we are all protesters or rebels, especially in the southern neighbourhoods of Bujumbura where we come from.’ If you are Tutsi, it is even worse, says Serge. ‘But Hutu opposition are also attacked by police in some districts. Young Hutu men have been pushed out, they have fled, some are here with us in Kigali. We have no problem with them, we share drinks, conversations and information about the situation in our country.’
Serge and Patrick hope they will return to Bujumbura as soon as possible to reunite with their loved ones in a country at peace. ‘What I miss the most about by country is the feeling of home, simply put,’ says Serge. ‘My friends, my family, the bars, etc. We like it here in Rwanda but we miss our life there. For work too, our future should be there.’ But they are not optimistic about the prospects for their home country in the coming weeks and months. Serge: ‘Right now I have no hope. If tomorrow the situation spirals out of control I will have to return there, like everyone else, and fight for my country. We cannot just stand here doing nothing.’
Patrick: ‘The fear is that the crisis degenerates in large massacres.’ On international response to the crisis, both men are unequivocal: ‘The fear is that the UN, the AU continue to do nothing. They can work on something now to save our country but they do nothing. That doesn’t give much hope,’ argues Serge. Patrick continues: ‘If they [international actors] wait until tomorrow we will all be dead.’
When asked about what could be changed or improved to fix the situation in Burundi,
‘The most important thing for Burundi today is that the leaders leave, take the exit. The president needs to go: that is the only solution for peace,’ says Serge. According to Patrick, ‘Bringing everyone at the table of negotiations is the best way to solve the conflict.’
Pamela, 33 years old, has always been socially and politically active in her home country. A former journalist in Burundi and then Belgium, she became a cultural and community activist in Bujumbura, working with youth. But in April 2015, she joined the anti-third-term civil society movement, openly voicing her opposition to Nkurunziza’s third term. She had to flee in big part for that reason. ‘Information was being disseminated that I was implicated in protests, women’s movements and even in the coup d’état [because of a protest that took place on May 13]! When you hear this, you do not have a choice but to leave. I was even threatened personally. Even though justice has never summoned me, we all know about extrajudicial killings in Bujumbura, so yes, it’s scary.’
Pamela has been in Kigali since July of last year. While she appreciates Rwanda’s open door policy to all Burundians, she echoes the concerns of most refugees. ‘It is rather difficult to insert yourself here. Even though Burundians and Rwandans share a similar culture and a similar language, there are still different practices, notably in the work environment. Coming from Bujumbura, it takes some time to learn how life works in Kigali.’
‘In Kigali, us Burundians aren’t really considered “refugees:” we are considered educated or middle class.’
Pamela emphasises financial issues, which have affected her, but also thousands of other Burundians in exile in Kigali. ‘In terms of integration, we all have primary needs. A lot of youth in exile here have not accumulated much savings so for them it is challenging to live on small money and rely on their friends. As refugees we are far from living a luxurious life, we are in survival mode. At the individual level, Rwandans are rather nice, sympathetic, useful and caring. But to say we are thoroughly supported by them would be a stretch. We don’t receive any financial support from people or organisations here, even though our financial situation can become extremely difficult: we eat what we buy ourselves, we really live with our own means. In Kigali, us Burundians aren’t really considered “refugees:” we are considered educated or middle class – which might explain why we don’t receive assistance. But life is just as hard. It would be interesting if there were at least more activities to help Burundians integrate, such as programs to visit the city, learn about events etc.’
With regards to the distinction between ‘urban’ refugees like her in Kigali and those in camps in the south of the country, Pamela argues there is not such a big difference after all. ‘Burundians from all social classes can be found in the camps: farmers, teachers, doctors etc. There is suffering everywhere. Some Burundians think that going to camps is like “burying” oneself, so they prefer to stay in Kigali as they are used to urban life of Bujumbura – despite the obvious challenges such as cost of life here.’
‘My hope is that one day we all be united around questions that develop the country, rather than infighting for the pettiness of political positions and titles.’
Amid the unrest in her home country, Pamela is not settled. ‘What I am most scared about is that the crisis situation in Burundi lingers on and deteriorates. At best, it will remain as status quo, with continued violence and killings, that is not really encouraging…’ Pamela especially misses the children from Meet’we, the cultural centre for youth development she founded in Bujumbura. ‘We had developed this centre in our childhood neighbourhood. Unfortunately the centre closed because most of the staff had to flee. It was really difficult leaving behind these children, all the more so in my neighbourhood with all my friends and family.’
Despite the current violence, Pamela wants to keep dreaming. ‘My hope is that one day we all be united around questions that develop the country, rather than infighting for the pettiness of political positions and titles. If I could change one thing in Burundi today it would be to remove all weapons from the hands of the youth, on all sides of the political spectrum. Violence is never the answer.’