Congo Spurns Burundi Refugees at Border

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) UNHCR is repeating its call for Congolese refugees currently in Burundi not to return to their native South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This follows an incident when more than 400 Congolese refugees from the recently closed camp in Gihinga, central Burundi, were stopped from entering their country by immigration officials of the DRC and allegedly attacked by Burundian authorities.

Reports from the refugees say Burundian soldiers from the Mwaro military camp together with the police attacked the camp last Monday at 4 a.m. to force the refugee survivors to a different relocation facility. "They stormed the camp and badly beat the refugee survivors," who are now sleeping outside after their tents were destroyed by the military and police. Other survivors tried to enter Congo.

A UNHCR summary report presented at the Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva cited security concerns as the reason refugees should avoid Congo.

The immigration services said their actions were based on security concerns for the group. The refugees had boarded 11 trucks provided by Burundian government yesterday morning, leaving behind another group of some 500 refugees waiting for their turn to return. When they reached the border they found it closed and the Burundian authorities took them back to Gihinga.

The Congolese refugees who were denied access to their country are those who earlier refused to relocate to the newly established Bwagiriza camp in eastern Burundi, claiming their security would not be guaranteed there. Bwagiriza camp is presently sheltering some 1,200 mostly Congolese refugees, including 599 who voluntarily transferred from Gihinga earlier this week.

For months, UNHCR and the Burundi authorities had carried out an information campaign to prepare the refugees in Mwaro for the voluntary relocation. However, when the exercise started, only 264 agreed to relocate. Those refusing to relocate said they feared for their safety in Bwagiriza. Once Gihinga closed, the refugees are only be able receive assistance in Bwagiriza. So far, 2,300 have refused to move.

Francesca Fontanini, UNHCR regional spokesperson, clarified the situation in an email exchange earlier this week.

Those refusing to relocate said they feared for their safety in Bwagiriza because of its proximity with the Tanzanian border where there are rival ethnic Bembe Congolese refugees. Despite UNHCR assurances that the camp was at a safe distance of 60 km from that border, they said they preferred to return to South Kivu and informed local Burundian authorities of their planned departure date of Monday 05 October.

UNHCR fears that any unorganized, large, movement of the Banyamulenge group to South Kivu at this time would put them at security risk. In the region, several revenge attacks on civilians of the same ethnicity -- or fear thereof -- have forced many of them into exile since June 2004, including those intending to return today from Burundi. The Gatumba massacre of August 2004 was one such attack, though it extended beyond the DRC borders. In the incident, armed men assaulted what was then a temporary camp for Congolese refugees in Burundi, setting huts ablaze and killing at least 160 people, mostly women and children, and wounding another 100.

If it is memory of the Gatumba massacre which is stopping the displaced from following relocation orders, it is no wonder that they have elected to return to the uncertainty of war in eastern DRC. With the demolition of Gihingi, they have little choice.


Image: Gatumba 2004

The future for these dispossessed is grim, considering that OXFAM, the International Rescue Committee, and Human Rights Watch maintain that the "joint-peacekeeping" operation between Rwanda and Congolese government soldiers (FARDC), led by war criminal Bosco Ntaganda, has been a dismal failure, creating a humanitarian crisis of another 250,000 displaced since January 2009. The victims were at Gatumba were mostly Banyamulenge, a group often categorized with Tutsi, and who remain at the center of the political discourse in DRC.

In a statement today, the Gatumba Refugee Survivors Foundation condemned the actions of the UNHCR.

In the face of the refugee resistance to move to Ruyigi, the UNHCR decided to cut all its assistance to these refugees, including foods, medical assistance as well as schooling for the children. As of now, these refugees, more than 2300, have been without food or drink, or any other sort of support for about two weeks. The most vulnerable, including children and pregnant women, are already in a dire situation, and their situation is deteriorating day by day. Moreover, the UNHCR withdrew its support staff from the camp, and no other sign of its presence is visible around there.

We condemn this decision and request that the UNHCR resume its activities immediately. We believe that subjecting these people to inhuman treatment in order to acquire their consent to move is not shocking to human conscience. No one should tolerate such behavior and no one should be put in a condition, be it refugees. This is so especially considering that among the refugees there are hundreds of children who are affected by the UNHCR decision.

Frustration in the face of this humanitarian tragedy is understandable. Where is SOS Hillary Clinton in the face of this, especially after her courageous meetings with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and his promises to the United States that he would do something to alleviate the crisis?

To turn away Congolese at their own border is unconscionable. There are additional reports from the ground in Congo that the "voluntary" relocation of IDP's from camps in and around Goma is a sham exercise. The displaced and dispossessed literally have no safety net as violence and atrocities, though unreported, continue in the Kivus.


Image: HRW Kabila says "go home" to this failure of Kimia II

Has Clinton been sidelined by President Obama because of her increase in popularity after her African tour, while his numbers were plummeting at home before the announcement today of the Nobel Peace Prize?

Additionally, the State Department said quietly last week that the United States will soon be pumping millions into a new Embassy in Burundi. The DOS Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) and the Bureau of Administration announced the award of a $109 million contract to build a New Embassy Compound (NEC) in Bujumbura, Burundi.

The NEC in Bujumbura, Burundi, will be constructed by Caddell Construction, Inc. of Montgomery, Alabama.

The project consists of a chancery building, a support annex/warehouse, a Marine security guard quarters, recreation facilities, three compound access control facilities and "related site development."

Something is afoot in central Africa and we are dropping the ball. On a visit to the region in 2007, a deep source at the UN told me that his/her expectation was that violence and genocide could erupt again and that the epicenter would be Burundi.

As we suggested in the LA Progressive earlier this week, given the current humanitarian mess in the region, an unholy "alliance" between Rwanda and DRC, the failure of Kimia II, and political fumbling, the source appears to be prescient.

Let's hope the source was wrong.