Four years after they were forced to abandon their homes and everything else, with prospects of going back getting ever more bleak, Burundian refugees are bitter and more ethnically radicalised today.
In findings of a study presented in Kigali this Thursday May 23, the refugees do not expect government to talk peace so they prefer using force of arms.
More than 250,000 Burundians fled their country to escape ethnic campaign orchestrated by the ruling party CNDD. The wave of mass migration started following failed coup on May 13, 2015 which came after months of protests.
Hardliners in the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza blamed the plot on Burundi’s Tutsi, and have openly accused government of Rwanda of being behind.
In Rwanda, as of April, there were more than 58,000 refugees in a large Mahama camp far away from the Burundian border.
Thousands others have blended into Rwandan villages and towns – welcomed by strangers.
Talks between political groups that claim to be representatives of these refugees with the Bujumbura government, have stalled. Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, appointed by regional leaders to mediate, is just as frustrated.
From the study, the hope among refugees in the talks has faded away.
“Since talk has not been possible and we cannot go back in peaceful way, we will go back through war because Nkurunziza will not leave power,” said one refugee quoted, echoing sentiment widely shared.
“People [lived] together in peace and today the population is divided because of Imbonerakure ideology of killing,” the refugee added referring to the extremist youth wing of the ruling party.
The study by researchers Alida Umutoni Furaha and Gerard Birantamije also shows that the refugees’ view of other Burundians still back home is marked by strong sense of suspicion and hatred.
“We do not interact with just anyone. We know who is who and we only talk to ours, the ones with whom we share problems,” said one refugee. “We have some people here in the refugee camp who decided to follow us not because they are in danger, but to spy on us.”
The “us” and “them” feeling is not only among refugees. The Chronicles recently interviewed Burundians visiting Rwanda who said they cannot try to greet those already here as refugees adamant they will be called spies.
The refugees have also made up their mind that they will always be the victims because to them, refugee life never stops.
One said: “We are now used to being refugees. In 1993 to 1994, I was also a refugee in Rwanda and I went back home and realised that what I fled did not finish. [CNDD FDD] continue to kill people who are not with them.”
Contrary to existing perception that only Tutsis fled Burundi, the study interviewed refugees in the camp who identified themselves as “Twas”.
In clear demonstration of how ethnic politics has consumed Burundi, members of this particular group claim President Nkurunziza’s ethnic group “stole” their term of office.
“The first term was for the Tutsi. The second for the Hutu and the third one was supposed to be for us ‘Twa’. Nkurunziza cheated. What else can we do,” said one.
Another added: “When Tutsi are flying, we have also to follow them because we were working for them. We were working in their plot [of land]. When they [Tutsi] fled for the first time we stayed in their plot”.
The study also found that the choice of which country the refugees crossed to was not by accident. Many had a clear choice between Rwanda, Tanzania or DR Congo.
“We decided to flee [to] Rwanda and not to Tanzania because we have been told that Tutsi cannot flee [to] Tanzania because they can be killed. So we choose to come here in Rwanda where we are safe,” said another.
This particular study is among about a dozen others on various other subjects being presented at a two-day AEGIS Research and Policy Conference in Kigali.
The study on Burundian refugees was was titled: “Understanding everyday experiences of conflict and (re)constructing identity: the case study of Burundian refugees in Rwanda”
Meanwhile, this Friday at the same conference, Dr Phil Clark, from the SOAS University of London, will launch his book – ‘Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics’.
Dr Clark raises key questions about whether, after nearly 17 years of consistent shortcomings and mounting frustration even among some of its most ardent supporters, the Court can survive.