Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

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
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Husband reported missing, wife manages to survive in camp

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The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Vizigiro Lambert is a Burundian woma, whose husband was reported missing in Burundi during the post-election socio-political disturbances. Before his disappearance, he had already planned to leave the country. Today, she lives with her three children in the camp of Lusenda in DR Congo, where she looks after the supply of humanitarian aid which appears not to cover all their basic needs.

During the demonstrations in Burundi in 2015, when the population and civil society marched against the third term of the current president Pierre Nkurunziza, Madam Vizigiro, her husband and their three children lived in Rutumo, in the commune of Bugarama, province of Rumonge, in the southwest of Burundi. Back then, the socio-political climate was not good. ”

When someone was abducted at night, sometimes his corpse was found early in the morning on the side of the street; sometimes he was reported missing,” she says, gesticulating.

Two days before she left the country, Madame Vizigiro was terrified because of the tragedy that happened to one of her neighbours. He was visited at night and found dead behind his house in the morning. This had sent a strong signal to her husband who was close to the late victim. So, together with her husband, they thought it best to flee the next day. “But unfortunately we had no money in the house that would allow us to travel abroad,” she explains.

After all that was finally settled, Madam Vizigiro and her three children fled alone to Baraka, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they were welcomed in the Mongemonge Refugee Transit Center in the hope that her husband would join them as soon as possible. Once in DR Congo, Madam Vizigiro had to phone her husband to find out about his news and inform him about hers, but unfortunately, she couldn’t reach him.

Desperate to speak to her husband, she tried another number of a neighbour who could easily reach him. He informed her that the day after her departure, her husband was kidnapped at night and no one knows anything about him. “Immediately I started to cry without saying anything to the children because I knew the fate of every person abducted,” explains Madam Vizigiro in a soft voice. She turned away as she gently rubbed the palms of her hands.

Since this unfortunate event, Madam Vizigiro often telephones to Burundi, but noone has the courage to tell her if her husband is alive or not; they tell her that they have not yet received news about him. If he was actually killed, she wouldn’t understand why, because, she says, “My husband never did politics, not even in the neighbourhood or on the street during the demonstrations; additionally, he stepped back from taking part in the quarter debates on the current political situation.” She still tries to cope with the hate, because “it was just enough that one day someone makes accusations against you to the intelligence agents, commonly called Imbonerakure, and then that evening you are visited,” she explains sorrowfully. To this day, she presumes her husband to be dead.

Struggle for Survival in the Camp

Like all other refugees in the Lusenda camp, Madam Vizigiro is mainly dependent on humanitarian aid from the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations such as Pax Christi Uvira asbl. At the end of each month, “the High Commission for Refugees gives fifteen US dollars to every refugee who has been duly registered,” she notes. This sum is supposed to meet the needs of the entire month apart from the school and health fees, which are taken care of by the humanitarian organizations.

“Beyond the food and the school and health fees, my needs and those of my three children are not always covered,” states Madam Vizigiro, who goes on to say that “this is the reason why many refugees carry on small trade manual labour to get paid money,” in order to cover both ends of the month.

Madam Vizigiro, brave in appearance and medium height, had spent a long time thinking of what work to do so as to find food, pay for shoes for her children, and pay for her clothes and those of her children. One day, chatting with one of her refugee friends, they decided to subscribe to the list of warehousemen, whose main task is to load and unload the vehicles of various humanitarian organisations that come to the Lusenda camp.

Previously, loading and unloading the vehicles was reserved for men only because, “when we went to ask for registration, we were told that men are better suited for this kind of work in terms of their physical strength,” explains Madam Vizigiro. She carries on to say, “They had asked us whether we were going to get by, and we accepted.”

Immediately registered, Madam Vizigiro and her friend joined a group of eight people, including three locals of Lusenda and five refugees, two women and six men all together.

“We receive the salary for loading and unloading a truck daily; it equals the amount of four US dollars,” explains Madam Vizigiro while complaining about the irregularity in which the trucks frequent the camp last time. She deplores that by saying, “Other times we counted seven to eight trucks per week.” This situation has already resulted in the dismissal of two warehousemen who found better work by cultivating the fields of the local residents in order to get paid.

In spite of this life, considered difficult by Madam Vizigiro, she does not think about returning to Burundi because, according to her, beyond the political aspect, there is also a tribal aspect that is worrying. “Due to the tribal hatred, my entire family is no longer in Burundi; they had left for Tanzania where they are now refugees, some in the Nduta camp and others in the Nyarugusu camp. We do not communicate because of lack of connection,” says Madam Vizigiro indignantly.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Interview with Bigirimana Musa in Lusenda Refugee Camp

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The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees.

Bigirimana Musa is a Burundian citizen, 35 years old, married with a child. He ran, locally, the youth league of the political party known as FEDES-Sangira (Forum for Equity Development, Democracy and Sovereignty). Nowadays, he lives in the Lusenda Refugee Camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His situation as a refugee is the result of the political opinion he was supporting in his country, while the regime in place was witch-hunting for anyone who had participated somehow in the demonstrations against the third term of President Peter Nkurunzinza.

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Mr. Musa, can you introduce yourself please?

As you have just called me by my name, I am a Burundian refugee living in the Lusenda camp where I hold the position of Village Chief IV; I am married and father of a child. I was born in Burundi, in the Province of Cibitoki, Mugina Municipality, Rubirizi Hill.

How can you explain your presence here in DR Congo?

Today I’m in Congo to seek refuge. I had to flee my country during the demonstrations in Burundi in 2015, which had ended in a coup d’état which, unfortunately, had failed. In short, people were protesting against the third term of the current President of the Republic, Peter Ngurunziza.

Personally, I was a member of an opposition political party called FEDES-Sangira, in which I was the leader of the youth league in my city, after I had left the FRODEBU (Front for Democracy in Burundi), which is also a radical opposition party. There I was holding a similar position.

Then, after the failure of the coup d’état, a witch-hunt had been started against anyone who, somehow, has taken part in the enterprise. That is why I had to flee the country, because I was also being sought.

Can you tell us how you managed to leave Burundi even though you were wanted?

Oh, I only left the country because I was being chased behind my back, as if they were running behind a murderer, who has just barely knocked a person down.

Explain to us what has happened?

As a matter of fact, I was sitting at home. All of a sudden, there was a neighbour, who suddenly entered my house to beckon me the presence of the armed forces in front of my home, who were looking for me. And then I did not ask any more questions, because I had already received alerts two days ago. I immediately jumped out of the window and fled.

Fortunately, after they saw me running, they ran behind me, but in vain.

So, all of a sudden, I had taken the road to the river Ruzizi to take the canoe to the DR Congo. Once at the river, I was desperate to call home to find out what happened after I left. It was confirmed that they were looking for me and before seeing me running, they first came to the house to see if I was there.

This is how I had the chance to come to Congo.

Mr. Musa, as leader of the youth league in the FEDES-Sangira party, what was your role in all these events?

In fact, I would say that the demonstrations were often held in Bujumbura. Then, when they unfolded I was there too, but I soon realized that the situation continued to get worse. So I decided to go home to Cibitoke, where everyone knew that I was coming from Bujumbura and I have been there for demonstrations.

But I had to face the fear of being arrested and rumours in the neighbourhood about me. But alas, after the coup failed, I was being sought.

Regarding my role in all these events: physically I did not take part in it, but I shared the ideology and the motivation of the protesters, because we were all from the opposition. Except that I was not fully involved, because I had also other matters for which I had been to Bujumbura.

Then, once in Congo, how could you find your family?

To reach the Congo, I had to take a lagboat for which I paid money to get to Luvungi (in DR Congo) where I had found a refugee reception center. I got enlisted and two days later the UNHCR agents came to give us refugee cards and transfer us in a convoy the long way from the Luvungi transit center to Lusenda.

Once in the camp, I tried to reach my family on the phone but in vain, and afterwards I managed to reach them by the number of a relative, who had informed me that I was still a wanted person by the security agents, commonly known as “Imbonerakure”. When I spoke with my wife, she told me about the threats she also suffered from, to bring me back to Burundi. So I told her to sell some goods so that she can join me here in the Congo. This is how she joined me here in the camp through the transit center of Sange.

Explain for us who are the “Imbonerakure” please!

The “Imbonerakure” is a militia group, composed of young people, under the orders of the President Pierre Nkurunziza, who play both the role of intelligence and security police.

How was your reception in the camp?

From the transit center to the camp, UNHCR took care of us; once in the camp it entrusted us to the AIRD, which is its partner and the camp manager.

Tell us how you live in Lusenda Camp.

You know that the life of a refugee cannot be as good as that of your home, but I do not want to go home because I fear for my life. This life is not really easy, but we will endure it as long as we are still refugees, because here we feel safe.

I have no other job here apart from being village chief, as I told you earlier. This is an unpaid position; we only live on the $ 15 US dollars that UNHCR gives us monthly and per each person, and also on humanitarian aid from various humanitarian organisations working in the camp, for example, Pax Christi Uvira asbl.

Moreover, those who are not satisfied with this aid go out of the camp clandestinely to trade and do handicrafts here in Congo to get some money.

And finally, what do you think of the idea of returning home?

I do not think it will be today or tomorrow that we’ll go back home, because the targeted killings and also the kidnappings are still common today. Here is one example: in the past months, February and March, we all followed the news on the radio about the assassination of the Minister of the Environment and of a colonel of the Burundian army. In conclusion, we, the ordinary people are still wanted.

As you seem to be in the habit of informing yourself about the situation in Burundi, what is the current situation in relation to this crisis?

In the news they say that all the political parties of the opposition gathered in a platform called CNARED (Conseil National pour le respect de l’Accord d’Arusha pour la Paix et la Réconciliation au Burundi et de l’Etat de droit). They are in dialogue with the regime of Bujumbura in Tanzania under the mediation of the former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. But I do not think there will be a solution, because President Ngurunziza always acts according to Machiavellianism. He tries to ease the tension by seeming to be open to dialogue in order to show those who would like try to return home that the situation has normalised.

Read this interview in French by clicking here.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: My visit to Lusenda Refugee Camp in DR Congo

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The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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In the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, precisely in the South Kivu Province in the Fizi territory, a Burundian refugee camp has been built in the Lusenda area since June 2015. Initially built for 20,000 refugees, the Lusenda Camp contains today more than 29,000 refugees who continue to flee the socio-political tensions in their home country. These refugees get humanitarian assistance from various organizations working in partnership with the UNHCR, including Pax Christi Uvira asbl, for which I am responsible for the youth program for human rights, and as a member of Pax Christi’s Young Peace Journalists team.

My visit from 12 to 14 April 2017 in Lusenda camp was my first as a journalist. However, in the past I had already visited the camp several times as an agent of Pax Christi Uvira asbl through its interventions in terms of projects for Burundian refugees and local host communities.

On my arrival, the administrative authority of the camp, to whom I had to present my civilities, took me to the village chiefs. After that I got the chance to speak to the residents regarding my mission. Talking to these chiefs, I noticed their curiosity and eagerness to hear the message that I brought them. It was of course about the Young Peace Journalists project and its purposes. By their reaction, I understood that each refugee in front of me had a personal and touching experience in the past that they would have liked to share with the entire world. Considering their reasons to flee and the way each of them had managed to leave Burundi, and especially the way of life they have in the Lusenda camp, the village chiefs told me that no refugee can be silent on such an occasion.

So, when I had a look around the camp, I realized that all the spaces, formerly used as cultivation areas, were occupied by tents made out of the “UNHCR tarpaulins” which shelter new refugee families. Indeed, the large amount of refugees coming from Burundi was already reported to me by the camp’s administrative authority, who highlighted the problem of camp overcrowding and the gaps in humanitarian assistance (health, education, nutrition, etc.) that remain enormous and far from being filled in terms of humanitarian responses from both the Congolese government, national and international partners.

At the end of my encounter with the village chiefs, they gave me the opportunity to choose one of them or other refugees in the camp to conduct the interview. At that moment, one of them, Mr. Bigirimana Musa, seemed to me timid, a little as if he was suffering, yet he has the appearance of a giant. I was curious to approach him and to know what was on his mind, then I understood that he was remembering the events and dramatic sequences that surrounded his escape to the Democratic Republic of Congo. So I offered him an interview for the next day which he willingly accepted.

Before the interview, Mr. Musa looked neither fearless nor shy, and it was this attitude that he carried during the whole interview. Nevertheless, his voice sank a little, especially when he had to explain the way he left the country, thinking of his survival, which he considered wretched in the country of refuge.

Finally, when I had returned home after conducting the interview, I felt satisfied in spite of the long journey I made, because I achieved my mission of finding a refugee and exchanging with him. But deep down, I understood how painful it is to be forced to flee one’s country because of one’s political opinions.

Read this article in French by clicking here.