Refugee Stories: Firewood, a source of conflict between Burundian refugees and local residents

The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about the experiences of Nizeyimana Edouard, a Burundian refugee living in DR Congo. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Interviewee Identity
Name: Nizeyimana Edouard
Age: 26 years old
Sex: M
Marital status: Married, Father of one child
Status: Burundian refugee from Camp Lusenda

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Summary:

Nizeyimana Edouard is part of the first convoy of Burundian refugees who settled in the Lusenda camp in 2015. The convoy’s settlement in this camp experienced disturbances which were, at first, notably related to their cohabitation of the area with local residents. At its roots, the issues were caused by the local inhabitants’ anger over the destructive effect the refugees’ practice of felling trees immoderately had on the environment and their fields. This problem found a peaceful solution through the mediation of UNHCR, its partners, and the local administrative authorities and through the use of “Ziganya”, small artificial embers stoves called “biomass briquette”, which are used instead of firewood.

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The socio-political situation in Burundi was intensely critical in 2015 when the President of the Republic, Pierre Nkurunziza, chose to run for the third term. This decision prompted all the political parties to join with civil society and the people to denounce what was described as a violation of the constitution and the Arusha Agreement. This situation has since escalated into unrelenting protests, targeted assassinations, and night abductions.

This is why Nizeyimana Edouard had to flee to DR Congo: “The young people of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, commonly called imbonerakuré, did not stand anyone from an opposition party or be neutral for those not interested in politics like me… many of my relatives have been victims.” In April 2015, he embarked with his family on a boat to a transit centre in Luvungi (DR Congo) where they were welcomed by the National Commission for Refugees (CNR) and then transferred to Lusenda Camp.

At first, a less troubled installation in the Lusenda camp

After Nizeyimana Edouard settled in Lusenda camp in 2015 as part of the first convoy of Burundian refugees, he was elected head of one of the villages. “As soon as we arrived,” says Edouard, “the UNHCR had already prepared tents for us and gave us food consisting of small weight, the beans, the corn flour, the rice and the oil, and also a very small quantity of firewood that was sometimes not enough to prepare food for a single day.” Refugees were formally prohibited from selling property received from UNHCR or other humanitarian partners operating in Lusenda camp.

Thus, everyone was trying their best to content themselves with the gifts they received from humanitarian organisations, especially the fact that “the environment was so strange to us that we did not collaborate with the residents for the entire first month of our installation.”

This way of life isolated the refugees from the rest of the community in the surrounding area, which was not without consequences; local residents tended to consider themselves discriminated against in that assistance was only provided to refugees.

Difficult cohabitation between Burundian refugees and Lusenda local residents

The donations the refugees received were not enough. Edouard admits, “Beyond what we received from the UNHCR, we went to surrounding forests to get firewood, some to heat their pots and others to sell, without imagining the danger that this could present.” Edouard explains that it was only afterwards that the residents started lamenting that “before our arrival they had beautiful hills, but they are now being denuded because of the woodcutting by the refugees.”

In 2016, a violent confrontation caused by the cutting of trees by the refugees arose, and a refugee died. Conflict expanded in other ways as well. “The natives had marched against the policy of the UNHCR that they considered discriminatory towards them in that they did not benefit from any humanitarian assistance, yet they need it even if they are not refugees,” adds Edouard with a smile.

Peaceful resolution of disputes

Solving this issue required the intervention of several actors including UNHCR, the local administrative authorities, and the National Refugee Commission (CNR). “We were invited to the common meetings to be aware of peaceful cohabitation,” informs Edouard. Both the local administrative authorities and the heads of the refugee villages in the Lusenda camp took part in these meetings, and they committed themselves, each one as far as they were concerned, to widely spread the message by repeating it to their subordinates.

Strategies were employed to bring the parties involved in the conflict closer together. “Beyond prohibiting us from going to cut the woods in forests, it was organised football games in common, frequenting the same market and the same churches according to one’s religion … and it was created a structure called ‘Local Dynamics for Peace’, in the framework of which we could sit with the residents and exchange about our mutual problems, and we were forced to plant at least one tree each one at home camp,” says Nizeyimana Edouard complacently.

Edouard says that in order to solve the problem at the source, “We recommended that the UNHCR provides us with sufficient firewood to no longer suffer from food preparation difficulties, but it has never happened.”

As an alternative, some humanitarian organisations came to make the refugees aware of improved stoves. “Many refugees have obtained furnaces made of mud surrounded by a round-shaped metal with a hole of air, and using artificial embers called biomass briquette, from the mixture of goat excrement, ash mixed with lubricant and palm crumbs”, explains Edouard.

In the Lusenda camp, this kind of stove is commonly called “Ziganya” and is used to very quickly cook any kind of food. The advent of this kitchen utensil has certainly overtaken the dangerous and environmentally destructive practice of cutting wood. “Although these stoves are now locally made by refugees, not everyone has the financial means to buy them, so some still prefer to buy embers from local residents instead of going in the bush to cut the woods, and others still wait for firewood to be provided by the UNHCR in sufficient quantity”, informs Edouard. Even so, he praises the peace found in these terms: “To this day, beyond that each of us keeps his natural identity, there is no more open conflict really between us and the local residents except that where there are people, there is a possibility of conflict.”

* Photo credit: WFP/Leonora Baumann, https://www.wfp.org/stories/market-day-refugee-camp-market-democratic-republic-congo

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