Burundi misery as 7,000 refugees flee 'no-go' area

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The Independent Online

Uvira, Zaire

A ragged and barefoot group gathers around Leonard Niyizigama, backs hunched against the wind that whips across the dusty hillside. Occasionally one of the group nods or murmurs in agreement as the story unfolds. It is a drama in which they have all played a part, for they have all fled their homeland in similar circumstances and have suffered similar hardships.

"I and my family were living in Cibitoke," said Mr Niyizigama, glancing over his left shoulder towards the Burundian border, which lies about 10 miles away among the green-blue hills. "Then the army came. We heard they were looking for guerrillas but then they began killing ordinary people. ... I ran away with my wife and children ... We had to hide for many days in the forest. We crossed the River Rusizi at night because the soldiers shoot at people crossing during the day."

Mr Nihizigama and his family are among more than 7,000 Hutu peasants who have recently fled into eastern Zaire from the Burundian provinces of Cibitoke and Bubanza. In all, more than 100,000 Burundian refugees now languish in the Uvira region.

A man with his arm in a sling pointed to a scar on his arm. He said it was from a bullet wound he received when Burundian soldiers shot at him near the border. All the men and women in the group said they had lost friends or family members in attacks by the Burundian military. But Medecins sans Frontieres personnel said they were seeing relatively few bullet wounds; most of the seriously wounded, they assume, are not making it across the Rusizi River.

These people scoff at the suggestion that they might go home. It is too dangerous, they say. There must be peace and justice before they can return. And the army must become properly integrated, with both Hutus and Tutsis in its ranks. For the moment, they say, they have no confidence in the government and, in any case, it is the largely Tutsi army that controls the country.

The north-western provinces have become a virtual no-go area. The Burundian military contends that its operations are directed at Hutu guerrillas who have recently become more organised, ambushing travellers and blowing up electricity and water installations. The evidence of the refugees turning up in Zaire, however, would seem to indicate that the army is far from discerning in its choice of targets.

Aid agencies, too, have suffered repeated attacks. Before Christmas, all the aid organisations, with the exception of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, pulled out of the region. "We are now moving back," said a World Food Programme spokesman, "... but until we can get some assurance from the local administrators, we cannot be sure that we are safe."

It is thought unlikely that Burundi will be consumed by the same kind of genocide as witnessed in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994, if only because the two ethnic groups have been largely segregated; the Hutus in the countryside and the Tutsis in the towns. However, neither is there any evidence that the slow-burning civil war that broke out after the assassination in October 1993 of Burundi's first elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, is about to stop. Since the assassination extremists from both sides have become embroiled in a conflict which the government, a coalition of Hutu and Tutsi parties, seems powerless to stop.

n Ngara, Tanzania (Reuter) -A senior Tanzanian official said on Wednesday his country was allowing in 16,000 Rwandans fleeing ethnic violence in Burundi despite playing host already to hundreds of thousands of refugees. Brigadier-General Sylvester Hemedi, district commissioner for Ngara area, said the decision was a humanitarian one and did not mean the border with Burundi, closed last year, was officially reopened for refugees.