On March 7, 2018, Rwandan border officials at the Ruzisi border with DR Congo’s Bukavu town began seeing streams of desperate people with their belongings. They were mainly woman, children and elderly.
It took several hours for local and central government officials to determine that the arrivals were Burundians. In the weeks that followed, Rwanda government decided the refugees were an unruly lot. They were packed in buses and put at the Rwanda-Burundi border.
However, it seems, among the 2,523 refugees in total who were transported to the Nemba border, and crossed into Burundi, not many stayed in Burundi. News now coming out of DR Congo’s north Kivu region suggests they crossed back to DRC.
Since Friday last week, DR Congo launched a security crackdown in which they have been rounding up Burundians from Goma and surrounding regions. As of Monday, more than 1,500 had been cantoned in transit camps, ready to be transported to Burundi border.
According to civil society and aid groups in Goma, like LUCHA, those being rounded up are members of a religious cult called Zebiya, a reclusive breakaway sect of the Catholic Church. LUCHA and other groups are calling for the authorities to halt the abrupt expulsions to first determine the problems these people have which never go away.
However, North Kivu provincial administration in local media based in Goma says the people being targeted are illegal Burundian migrants without official documents.
While briefly in Rwanda back in 2018, the refugees came with bizarre behaviors. When Rwandan officials couldn’t manage them, they were forced back to their country.
Here, they all refused to be registered as is the practice for all refugees. In the transit camp in Rusizi, they refused to be checked by medics. They also refused packed food provided by UN aid agencies.
At the time, a menacing chorera outbreak was ravaging eastern Congo. The arrivals reacted angrily towards camp officials who tried to give them sanitary materials or even asking them to wash their hands.
It emerged in the days following their arrival that the refugees belonged to an obscure Catholic sect that follows a female prophet called Zebiya Ngendakumana. They said at the time that they had previously fled Burundi for DRC due to religious persecution and yet they had decided to go back.
From Rusizi transit camp, they were moved to a permanent camp in Gashora, Bugesera – some 40km southeasteast of Kigali. The camp is located about an hour from the Burundi border.
According to Rwandan media reports from the time, on March 28, 2018, the Burundians moved their resistance to another level – even holding a rowdy protest. Rwandan Police detained some 33 of the ringleaders. Those arrested were released and bundled together with all others and sent home.
That early morning at the Nember border on April 1, 2018, as the dozens of buses arrived bringing the refugees, Burundian border guards at first refused to let them in as they had been caught off-guard.
The incident also came at a time time when Burundi had essentially closed its border with Rwanda after relations between Kigali and Bujumbura had collapsed since the 2015 failed coup.
By late evening of that day of the forced repatriations, the refugees were still packed on the Burundian side of the border. They could be seen being walked deep inside Burundi by armed police and soldiers to nearby villages.
Before then, while thet were still on the Rwandan side, in interviews with Rwandan media, they made strange comments. “The Virgin Mary has guided us from wherever we have been and will look after us. We cannot abandon God,” said a woman, holding on to a rosary, like everyone of them.
Another said; “The Congolese chased us from their country because they detested our faith, God have mercy on them.”
Asked why they had refused all help, food and treatment from Rwanda, a man responded: “God takes care of everything. Those medicines damage our bodies and kill the soul.”
It seems though, going by the news reports coming out of Goma, these people may have arrived in Burundi – and slowly went back to DRC.
Jean Bosco Sebishyimbo, North Kivu provincial assembly member told BBC greatlakes service this Monday that after they were repatriated back to Burundi, they entered back to DRC via Bukavu, Miniova and other exit points on the Burundi-Congo border.
Sebishyimbo said that this time they will be rounded up and transported from all regions to the Burundi border.
Since Friday, they are being put on trucks and moved to camp in Bukavu, the main town in South Kivu. From here, after all have arrived, will be taken to Burundi border, which is down south.
North Kivu provincial administration says 700 are women, 500 are children and the rest are men.