Burundi refugees facing starvation

THE onset of the rainy season in Central Africa threatens disaster and starvation for about 600,000 people who fled from Burundi and are now living in north-eastern Tanzania, Rwanda and Zaire.

Despite a truce between political parties that could bring peace to Burundi, they may not be able to return to their homes because of the rains. If they cannot get back to their villages now there will be no harvest in six months' time and there will be famine. Bad roads and inaccessible camps in Tanzania and Zaire mean many are dying now from cholera and starvation.

Of those who ran from their homes in Burundi to escape the tribally motivated massacres last October, an estimated 250,000 are displaced in Burundi, while according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees some 245,000 are in Tanzania, 275,000 in Rwanda and an estimated 60,000 in Zaire. They fled after the killing of some 100,000 people that followed the murder of Melchior Ndadaye, the newly-elected President - the first ever from the Hutu people.

Last week political parties in Burundi called for an end to the killing and destruction and announced a truce after a meeting between the Prime Minister, Sylvie Kinigi, and the leaders of the country's main political parties. The parties called on their militants to act responsibly and urged all Burundians 'to stop all demonstrations, destruction, harassment and intimidation'.

In Tanzania the government is expected to ban exports of food and has warned of 'looming disaster'. According to Medecins sans Frontieres: 'Food shortages are compunded by drastic transport problems. Trucks cannot get to many of the villages.'

Attempts by the Tanzanian government to resettle the refugees have resulted in confusion and panic, according to an MSF worker, who said that people were scattering into the bush.

According to Tom Walker, an MSF aid worker based in Kigoma, the refugees arrived in Kigoma a month ago healthy and resilient, but squeezed into the local football stadium their condition has deteriorated rapidly because of food and water shortages. But at least the town is accessible. 'The rainy season has made roads to (some) villages virtually impassable . . . conditions on the border are worsening.'

The World Food Programme has said it will extend its feeding programme for a further six months, but the UNHCR has exhausted the dollars 17m ( pounds 11.5m) for the Burundi crisis and needs new funding.