Burundian refugees in Uganda too scared to go home | Africa | DW | 20.02.2017
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Burundian refugees in Uganda too scared to go home

Burundi is campaigning for the return of its refugees from Ugandan camps. The government is afraid that opposition groups may be forming while in exile. But Burundi’s refugees are not about to return voluntarily.

In 2016, Uganda took in more African refugees than the whole of Europe. This generosity has earned Kampala the praise of the West but African countries are more skeptical. They fear that the camps may offer an ideal stage for the formation of opposition groups. Many Burundians fled the country in 2015 after a failed coup led to increased violence.

Burundi has been especially vocal in demanding the return of refugees like Eduard Nshinirimana. Whenever the Burundian student feels tense, he strums his guitar. It is his only possession besides two wooden stools and an old carpet in the living room of his mud house in the refugee settlement of Navikale in western Uganda.

A couple of days ago, a high-ranking Burundian delegation visited the Ugandan camp. This brought up memories Nshinirimana would rather forget.

Safe haven

Nshinirimana told DW that he had to flee his country in 2015 after he came home from school to find his family murdered. 

"The house was burned, my father and mother were killed, even two brothers and one sister. I was hopeless. Immediately I found other people who decided to go to Uganda," he said.

Two armed Burundian soldiers wearing sunglasses, one of them with a headscarf, look into the camera.

The security situation in Burundi is still far from safe

The young man feels safe in Uganda. At least he used to. The visit by the Burundian delegation caused agitation among the refugees who demonstrated against forced repatriation. The visit was part of an aggressive campaign by Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's government to encourage more than 350,000 refugees in neighboring countries to return home.

According to Burundian officials, the country is peaceful now and everybody is needed to help rebuild it. 

No forced repatriation

Many analysts suspect that the real reason for the pressure being put on refugees is that the government is afraid that political opposition could be gaining strength in the camps, far away from the prying eyes of President Nkurunziza's government.

For now, at least, Eduard Nshinirimana absolutely refuses to go home.

"I know some people who went back to Burundi. I knew them from here in the camp. Immediately upon reaching the Burundian border, they were taken to prison," he said. They have not been seen since, he added.

Previously, the Ugandan Minister of Relief and Disaster Preparedness Hillary Onek showed some sympathy for Burundi's demand that the refugees go home. Uganda is an important mediator in Burundi's peace process which has reached an impasse and openly contradicting Nkurunziza's government would not help. But this is causing uncertainty among Burundian refugees and has led the Ugandan government to clarify that it will stand by international law and that, at this point, no refugee will be repatriated against  his or her will. 

A piece of land

The deputy head of the refugee camp of Navikale, Benyendera Esau, goes a step further, stating that even though the camp with its more than 100,000 inhabitants is starting to run out of space, refugees will continue to be welcome. And they will even be given their own piece of land.

"As long as land continues to be scarce, the size may have to be reduced. But the idea is to enable a family to make sure that they can live more or less the way they were living in their home countries or at least the way the host communities here are living," he said.

Dismas Nkunda, chief executive officer of the NGO Atrocities Watch Africa, welcomed the official promise not to force refugees to go back as Burundi is far from being safe yet, he told DW.

"Killings, torture rape are still happening on a daily basis in Burundi. So people have a right to flee," Nkunda said, adding that refugees will know when peace returns to their country. "Nobody wants to live outside their home country," he said.

Eduard Nshinirimana would like to go home. But he will not return as long as President Nkurunziza is in power, he said. The president's people were responsible for the death of most of his family and he said he could never live peacefully under their regime.

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