VISITING THE MAHAMA REFUGEE CAMP FOR FLEEING BURUNDIANS

VISITING THE MAHAMA REFUGEE CAMP FOR FLEEING BURUNDIANS

Before 2016, the closest I had ever been to anything related to refugees; was my constant interaction with the late Chief Olusegun Olusola; in his library cum office in his residence in Lagos State. Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Ethiopia when Ethiopia had her own issue with war, famine and refugees; the brain behind The Village Headmaster (popular TV Series of the late 70s and 80s which aired on State Television NTA) and the founder of AREF (African Refugees Foundation). These interactions and subsequent participations in AREF’s events lasted for close to three years in the late 2000s. The interest in refugees’ plight must have been ignited by my interactions with the late Ambassador, who was also synonymous with the refugee camp set up in Oru in Ogun State, for refugees from Sierra Leone and also Liberians who fled Liberia during the civil war in the 1990s.


In 2015, Burundi got embroiled in a constitutional cum political quagmire. The imbroglio snowballed into political and civil unrests. Reports came in that a majority of Burundians wanted no misinterpretation of and to the constitution and that President Pierre Nkunrunziza should vacate after his final term. Alas, the former physical education teacher, football loving President had other ideas. The unrests intensified unto the streets of Bujumbura and her environs. And Burundians in their tens of thousands fled the country. A lot, sought refugee and succour in Mahama Refugee Camp, in Mahama district, Kirehe Sector of Eastern Province in Rwanda.


As a Nigerian writer with keen interests in East Africa affairs; I visited the Mahama Refugee Camp for Burundians on May 20th 2016.


According to the Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs’website; Mahama Camp is situated in Mahama Sector, Kirehe District, in Eastern Province, at about 270km from Kigali city. It was established to accommodate thousands of Burundian refugees who massively fled to Rwanda when political crisis related to presidential elections erupted into violence in Burundi. Thousands of Burundian refugees who fled in a big influx were temporarily accommodated in transit centers in different part of the country depending on their entry points.


Mahama camp was officially opened on April 22, 2015 in order to move refugees near the borders of Burundi and provide them with enough space for accommodation. It covers the surface area of over 50 hectares. Actually, about 21,000 Burundians fled to Rwanda in April 2015 to escape violence when the political and electoral violence began in Burundi.


As at when I visited the Mahama Refugee camp in May 2016, it was still the biggest camp in Rwanda with a population of over 50,000 (52, 853 Burundian refugees to be exact.) But according to Caritas Rwanda in June; the climate of instability and insecurity continues in Burundi and the total number of Burundian refugees registered in Rwanda has not stopped rising since March 2015.


THE TRIP; THE TIMELINES


As usual, I woke up at past 4am on Friday, May 20 2016 listening to the BBC World Service and getting some work done on my laptop in my room in Kigali, Rwanda. At past 9am, I had to pick up an approval letter from the appropriate office to visit the Mahama Refugee Camp. I got into the car and I was introduced to my driver for the day (lets call him Faustin). Faustin spoke passable English and just before journey commenced, Faustin inserted a CD and gospel music played albeit non-tinnily from the car stereo.


At 10am; the three hour journey from Kigali to the Mahama Refugee Camp began at Sopetrade. The SUV crisscrossed the roads of Kigali. At 10:19am, we went past Kanombe and also past Area 15 and Murindi. An hour into the journey, I realised I had forgotten a vital work tool (digital recorder). I informed Faustin; we had to return to Kigali to pick it up. Faustin pulled over and parked the car and had to make acall to get a go ahead to take initiative. We drove back to Kigali.


And in no time, we were back on the road heading out of Kigali crisscrossing hills and viewing green landscapes, bright skylines behind mountains. We drove past farmlands; cows (black and white skin) masticating on grass. We drove past Rugende and we were crisscrossing bends with hills on both sides of the road. I observed that even on the expressway, there you would find ample space for people to walk and straddle their bicycles.


At 11:45am, we got to the Eastern Province and crisscrossed more breathtaking hills (greenery scenes to make you grin or green.) Ntunga went by and in Rwamagana, I saw farmers either returning home or going to their farms. Also, along the road, primary school students in red uniforms, either returning home or going to school. After a while, we drove through Kayonza.


At 12:19pm; we were on the road which leads to Tanzania. We drove through Kabarondo and driving through Rusumo; Faustin informed me that the road would take one to Tanzania. Somewhere on this particular stretch of the road, I spotted a Nigerian new generation bank’s branch (The Bank with an Orange G) and also the bank’s banner. We drove through Ngoma and Kibungo, past shops that repair bicycles. And at a particular area, it occurred to me that Rwandans are generally neat people; their surroundings to the best of their abilities are usually clean and tidy.


As we drove, crisscrossing more hills, (which were on both sides) and more or less engulfed the car. During this period at 1.13pm; it occurred to me that throughout the journey I had not seen a pothole on the tarred roads all the way from Kigali. During one part of the journey, we had to be sure; we were on the right road and not heading to Tanzania. Faustin spoke to a lady and a boy and directions were given. The conversation was in Kinyarwanda. The native tongue (no other local language) spoken in Rwanda.


At about the same time 1:13pm, we arrived in Kirehe; the district where Mahama Refugee Camp located. Beside the Kirehe district Gate, I saw a large farm (several hectares) and I saw women who were busy working and tilting the soil and who had affixed to their heads multi-coloured shortened umbrellas to protect them from the sun. Driving through Kirehe district; I saw cheerful kids chatting and climbing up the hills, returning from school. We drove past Gotore and in Kirehe, I saw bicycle-straddling male farmers riding back home with fresh bunches of bananas (enough tom feed a family of 6 for a month).


In Kirehe, I thought the people I saw on the road were too tall because they were walking on the tarred road, rather than the sidewalk. I was wrong. People in Kirehe are exceptionally tall.


At 1:42pm; we were on the road to the camp.  At 2:03pm; we got on the stretch of road leading to the camp; though quiet, I still saw human activity (a moto (motorcycle went by), a herd of cows led by shepherds-two young boys). I reiterate that throughout the journey, I didn’t encounter a pothole. I reiterate that till we got to the stretch of road leading to the camp. The road yet to be tarred but already levelled red soil road.


But as at 2:21pm, we were still on the road leading to the camp. After two more consultations with good Samaritans and discussing with the Mahama Camp Manager on phone; we realised were still on track. On the final bend to the Mahama Refugee Camp, I spotted a very tall teenager (at least 6 foot 7 inches). The young boy in school uniform was with friends returning home. As a 6 foot 4 inches young man; I felt like a hobbit, seated in the car.


At 2:30pm, thirty minutes after we commenced the journey from the Mahama Camp road, we arrived at the gates of the Mahama Refugee Camp.


THEIR TALES; THEIR TENTS


Whilst by the sentry post by the gates of the Mahama Refugee Camp, waiting for the camp manager Mr Ngoga Aristarque to meet us, I spotted Burundian children with the all too familiar (in Africa) yellow jerry cans, going to and from fetching water, with the jerry cans on their heads. After interviewing the camp manager in his office, I took a crash course tour of the camp (because Faustin and I left Kigali late, a prolong tour of the camp would mean, we didn’t want to return to Kigali that night.)


The Mahama Refugee Camp which is situated on a fifty hectares expanse of land is quite unique. It is surrounded by mountains (some in Rwanda and Tanzania) and it is quite some scenery to behold with the clouds appearing not to be too far away. I saw houses built with red bricks (all looking neat in hygienic surroundings).


As we either drove or walked through the camp; I saw Burundian children (young children whose lives have been set back by the instability in their Burundi) looking at me as I took some pictures of what I observed. The red semi permanent shelters were rolls long (as far as the eyes could see) and columns wide.


Since it was afternoon, it was easy to find students (adorned in sky blue shirt or blouse and dark blue trousers or skirts) returning from school. Kiosks were forever open for business (indicating the entrepreneurial spirit was not lost on the Burundian refugees.) We drove by a market with women and their wares from bananas, tomatoes and other foodstuffs and fruits. Along the road, I spotted charcoals for sale.  When we walked round the camp, it was Mr Aristarque and I. When we didn’t walk, Faustin drove us around.


And we (Mr Ngoga Aristarque and I) went along the Ivuriro Health Center, walking round the large camp, I could still see the mountains of Tanzania from all sides, I could see more rows of red semi permanent shelters and people walking down a road to another part of the camp, way down (but you would think, they were walking into Tanzania from where I stood). Walking between houses, one could see the makeshift kitchens Burundians erected behind their abodes. Some families were seated outside discussing. Spotted an interesting family seated outside discussing and as I took a picture, a family member decided to smile for the lenses. The girl’s big and revealing smile; brightened the picture. I thought, what have people like her done to flee her Burundi?


The Central borehole spot is where the Burundian refugees fetch water. And it was well kept and clean.  


A unique feature of the red semi permanent shelters is an A4 paper with identification (number and alphabets) affixed on the door. The identification represents village, community and plot number. This makes for easy identification. Each village has a head, each village has communities and each community has plot numbers.


Whilst the camp manager and I walked from one column of red semi permanent shelters crossing another road into another column of semi permanent abodes; we sighted Burundian refugees (most women) having a dance gathering and I watched them. Continuing our walk around the camp, one spotted more kiosks selling items from sachet detergent, groundnut oil in nylon etc. The soil might be red but one could not miss the cleanliness of the streets and major roads in the camp; nor the fact that vegetables are planted as nutritional supplements.


One a particular stretch of road, one spotted female tailors withier their sewing machines outside the shop busy with the machines sewing attires. Whilst trying to take the picture of a mobile dustbin; a young girl came into view; watching me intently from the door of her house. Adjusting my camera lenses to take a picture; she also adjusted; by drinking water from her big plastic cup, eyes watching me from above the rim of her cup. Her hand never came down. What transpired was less than 10seconds but I understood and went on.


Walking through some streets and negotiating some roads to link up to other streets, one could not miss roads that snaked way down. Walking through streets, one could not miss seeing washed clothes on the ubiquitous dry lines or extended wires. Or seeing women doing some laundry outside their abodes. Or spotting a man carving out firewood from a tree trunk with an axe and his son watching him intently. Or a man taking it gently, straddling his bicycle strapped with two bunches of fresh bananas. Or spotting the Children zone, where Burundian children were playing football and other swinging and having fun.


While on another road trying to take a particular picture, some children waved back. Trying to take another picture of another place, the children looked on. Since it was a sunny day and evening was about to set in, one sighted a young man pouring grains on a mat.


More clean streets and roads where negotiated. More kiosks were sighted. On the last lap of the drive round the periphery of the Mahama Refugee Camp, one spotted children having fun in a pond. From afar, one could see the roofs of the red semi-permanent houses one had just driven and walked trough.


Also, one could also sight the white UNHCR tarpaulin tents (synonymous with refugees all over the world) dotted like bright stars round the camp. A field with young boys playing football; enveloped by a sea of another set of UNHCR tarpaulin tents and in the midst of the tents was an elevated water tank.


On the road to see the Mahama Water Treatment Plant, one spotted portions of farms used for corn farming. At the water treatment plant funded by UNHCR with the partnership of OXFAM, I was introduced to Mr Pascal Ngabonziza, who is one of the Oxfam public health engineers in charge of the plant production. Pascal, who looked like a very young man informed me that the water treatment plant produces clean and enough water for serving approximately 50,000 Burundian Refugees and each one refugee gets at least twenty or above Litres of water per person per day.


I spotted several tanks with the Oxfam and UNICEF logos on the tanks. And also, spotted several treatment plants and four pumping machines. The tanks were chemical mixing tanks, flocculation and sedimentation tanks, chlorination tanks and sanction tanks which are used for water treatment at the plant.


As we left the water treatment plant, I could see the unending columns and rows of the white UNHCR tarpaulin tents. Walking within these white UNHCR tarpaulins; which are emergency hangers for the new arrival of Burundian refugees, one noticed that the streets which had columns and rows of tents were kept neat and signs of daily activities (clothes on wires, stoves and yellow jerry cans outside several tents). And I spotted a little girl carrying a toddler.


As we got to the main gate of the Mahama Refugee Camp, I sighted the signpost with the Food Distribution Point. And opposite the signpost, I spotted about sixteen teenagers beside a viewing centre (a place where people watch sports especially football matches on the African Continent). The boys were milling around, probably trying to gain entrance into the viewing centre.


On my way out of the camp, I counted six signposts of the first signpost (UNHCR, UKAID, USAID, UNCFRE, EU,), Plan International, ADRA Rwanda, Save The Children, Tearfund, ARC. All close to the main entrance.


After appreciating the camp manager for his time, at 4:18pm; Faustin and I began the 3 hour journey back to Kigali with thoughts running through my mind. Coupled with this, was the scenery of up country Rwanda; mountains crisscrossing each other and the driver navigating turns and bends innumerably times. During the journey back to Kigali, I spotted students returning from schools. This is unique because at past 5pm, the sun begins to set in Rwanda and in no time, it because dark before 6pm. So spotting students returning home at about 5:45pm when the sunset had arrived; was strange.


When the three hour journey to the Mahama Refugee Camp commenced, the driver inserted a gospel CD. Some songs were in English, the remaining (quite a lot) were in Kinyarwanda. But one song arrested my attention. So as we drove to Kigali; Rwanda’s gospel artiste Thacien Titu’s Burigihe which was on repeat, played albeit non-tinnily from the car sound system. Months later, I was informed that the wordings of the song and in English, Thacien Titu’s was simply saying “every time I remember what you have done; I will thank you. Please help me remember all that you have done, so that I thank you.


TRUTHFUL THOUGHTS


The World Refugee Day is observed on June 20 each year and 2016 was no different.


On Thursday, the 14th of July 2016, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzal visited Mahama Refugee Camp and experienced first hand what Burundian girls, boys, men and women went through in Burundi. Some things can not be explained.


At the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York which held from September 19-23 2016, two events on refugees and their outcomes were topmost (The New York Declaration and President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees).


Honestly, considering my experience and seeing what refugees go through, these refugee summits were devoid of credible and tangible cast-iron binding commitments. It won’t take any one or group of people (especially global leaders) to take the most efficient and expedite policies regarding the plight of refugees.


In his piece in The Irish Times published on Tuesday, September 20, 2016, Oxford Professor Alexander Betts; Director of the Refugee Studies Centre; opined that “inevitably, the content of the declaration is abstract. It contains important ideas: refugee camps should be the exception, all refugee children have a right to an education and refugees are a shared global responsibility. If states could be held accountable to these commitments, this would make a difference. In other areas – like a commitment to resettle 10 per cent of the world’s refugees – spoiler states ensured key parts of the text were removed. The difficulty is that the mechanisms for achieving the lofty goals in the declaration are vague at best.”


And I concur with the Oxford Professor’s piece. May I add that the recent summits on refugees would certainly end up not achieving much. According to UNHCR’s latest report on its website; the total appeal needed for Syrian refugees is $4,539,342,336; Pledges received to date is $1,822,158,755 and the gap is $2,717,183,58. The coverage is just forty percent.


The Burundian refugees; like other refugees in Syria and other parts of the world torn by conflicts need decisive policies both by international and regional bodies and in this case, the African Union. The sufferings (physical and psychological) can not be fully described and experienced even if you are a witness. Being a refugee strips one of all of his/her privacy.


Global leaders and African leaders should be sincere and end the summits and meetings on global refugees’ crisis which promise much and even donations (donations that most times are never fulfilled). The Supporting Syria Conference co-hosted by UK, Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the United Nations was held on February 4th 2016 raised over $12billion for 2016 and 2017-2020. How much promised during the event has been received?


Global leaders and African leaders should be sincere and end summits and meetings on global refugees’ crisis which end up being expensive talkshops with nations pulling strings to water down wordings of communiqués not really pledging to the needed commitments. Refugees are human beings in dire need of support and the appropriate actions and policies are needed.


As at Monday, October 17, 2016, the latest statistics from UNHCR and MIDIMAR indicated that 51, 826 Burundian refugees were in the Mahama Refugee Camp. In total, 81,566 Burundian refugees were in Rwanda with 29, 740 settled in Bugesera, Nyanza, Nyagatare, Mahama, Gatore, Kigali and Huye. And these over 80, 000 refugees came from areas in Burundi, such as Kirundo, Bujumbura Mairie, Muyinga, Ngozi, Karuzi, Kayanza, Cibitoke, Ruyigi, Gitega, Bubanza and other areas. The total appeal for Burundi is $95,201,990. But total received to date is $32, 755, 479. The gap is $62, 446, 511. Meaning the coverage is only 34%.


Just when the ICC is conducting a preliminary investigation into politically motivated violence in Burundi in which several hundreds of people lost their lives; Bujumbura decides to leave the International Criminal Court. But under the Rome Statute, set up by ICC, any move or decision by any country to opt out of the ICC jurisdiction can only become active only a year after initial notification is given to the UN secretary-general. And in this case, it would be Antonio Guterres.


With a new United Nations Secretary General Designate, Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal and former United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015); to begin his tenure in 2017; one hopes that the snail-paced status quo would change. For now, refugees need all the help and leaders and policy makers who would execute the appropriate ethical and moral decisions. Enough of the unending talkshops. Please.


Video: A Visit to Mahama Refugee Camp (for Burundians) Eastern Province, Rwanda


Pictures: My Visit to Mahama Refugee Camp (For Burundian Refugees)


Dolapo Aina,


Lagos, Nigeria.


dolapo@dolapoaina.com|dolapowrites@yahoo.com


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October, 21 2016


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