Three Mothers Lead a Daring Escape from Burundi

Fleeing pre-election violence, three families catch a bus, ride bicycles and finally scramble on foot to reach safety in Rwanda.

It is rainy season in Rwanda. Jeanne* and her four children are sheltering in a tent at Bugesera transit centre, not far from the border with Burundi. Despite difficult, crowded conditions, the family joke and smile freely. But, like the thousands of other Burundian refugees who have sought safety here recently, their faces cloud over when I ask them why they fled their home.

“I fled because there is a conflict between the ruling party and the opposition party,” says Jeanne, 34. “The ruling party wants the President to go for a third term. His term is over but he still wants to be a President. I think this will be a war, and that’s why I fled.”

Jeanne and her children are among some 25,000 people who have fled pre-election violence in Burundi and arrived in Rwanda in the last several weeks.

“The Imbonerakure would come and paint our houses,” she says, describing threats by the youth wing of the ruling party. “They painted mine. They painted red on my house at night, and when we opened the door the next morning we saw that the house was painted. I don’t remember the exact date, but I think it was in March, perhaps the 23rd.”

 Jeanne, Brigitte and Félicité were neighbours back in Bujumbura. When pre-election violence became too much to bear, they resolved to flee together with their 10 children. UNHCR/Kate Holt

Back in Bujumbura, Jeanne and two of her neighbours, Félicité and Brigitte, had good jobs. Félicité was attending medical school and working at the hospital, while Brigitte had a small stall at the market and Jeanne ran a restaurant. But as the political climate worsened, they began to fear for their lives. A month later, together with their 10 children, they fled.

“We knew that on Saturday the President would say if he would run again,” recalls Brigitte, 36. “The Imbonerakure had said that they would rape us if we would not support the party. This is not something that I just say. They had put it in practice and we saw it. They would come and kill people, maybe in the evening. They came to kill my brother, but he was at university. They did not find him.”

One morning at 6 a.m., the three women and their children began their journey to Rwanda. They left Bujumbura by bus, but encountered many problems along the way.

“When the Imbonerakure saw us they wanted to beat us,” says 24-year-old Félicité. “We bribed them with money. In total, we gave them 50,000 Burundian Francs [about US $31]. Every time we left a place, we were hearing that in that place they were searching for us. We were very scared. The leader of Kirundo Province had given an order that morning that no one should cross the Province.”

 Jeanne, Brigitte and Félicité are among 25,000 Burundian refugees who have fled pre-election violence in Burundi and arrived in Rwanda. UNHCR/Kate Holt
The journey was also traumatic for the three women’s children.

Charles, Jeanne’s 12-year-old son, is the eldest of them all. “When I got back from school on Wednesday, my mum told me that we would leave to go to Rwanda,” he recalls sadly. “The next day, I was going to take the national exam” at school.

Even now, the memory of their journey to Burundi is fresh in Charles’ mind.

“We were in the bus and it was very cold,” he says. “I covered myself and I went to sleep. I dreamt that there was a war, that people were killing each other and that there were gunshots. When we reached Kirundo, we stayed there for an hour. We boarded a mini-bus, but we were stopped by the police. They asked for our ID’s [identity cards]. My mum gave them hers. The other women also did. They also asked for money. It was a lot, but we gave the money. There was a young man who saved us. If it was not for him, we would have been killed. He talked to the police and they let us go. He was a man from Kirundo. That young man talked to the police for a long time and gave them money. He then took us to his home for an hour.”

“I dreamt that there was a war, that people were killing each other and that there were gunshots.”

But the women and children still had to find a way to reach Rwanda.

“We asked the man to bring us bicycles,” continues young Charles. “So we rode bicycles, but on the way we were stopped again. We gave them money but they refused it. Then they told my mother to get off her bike, or they would cut us. My mum got off the bike and she ran. The road was full of stones and she cut herself. I was very scared that she would not arrive, but they let us go and we continued the journey. I met my mother on the other side of the border.”

More than 25,000 Burundians have fled to Rwanda in recent weeks. Salvatore and Esperanza say they left home at 4 a.m. and trekked seven hours through the bush with their children. UNHCR/Kate Holt

Upon reaching the transit centre at Bugesera, where UNHCR is coordinating the emergency response, the three families were given shelter, sleeping mats, blankets, mosquito nets, jerrycans and drinking water.

Finally, they are safe. But happiness still feels far away.

Jeanne left a husband and two other children behind in Bujumbura, and has had no news of them since. “Two of my children stayed with their dad,” she explains. “They wanted to come with their mother, but I did not have enough money to take them with me.”

“The kids keep asking where is their dad, and I don’t reply to the question. I don’t know if he is still alive.”

Brigitte also left her husband and brother behind in Bujumbura, and worries because she hasn’t heard anything. “I last talked to my husband on 26 April, and I last talked to my brother when I still was in Burundi,” she says. “It hurts me because I haven’t heard from him. We were orphans. He was like our father and now I don’t know if he is still alive. I am deeply hurt. The kids keep asking where is their dad, and I don’t reply to the question. I don’t know if he is still alive.”

Their stay at Bugesera transit centre will be a short one. Tomorrow, Brigitte, Félicité, Jeanne and their children will move to the new Mahama refugee camp, further away from the border. They are glad to have found a safe place, but sad to leave the centre without their husbands and rest of their families.

“We feel bad because we are going far away from our people,” says Brigitte. “We don’t know if we will see them again.”

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A Syrian Family Counts its Blessings

Heba’s husband was kidnapped five times. Her children’s school was bombed. Now safe in Lebanon, they cherish fading memories of home.

I meet a lot of refugees in the course of my work with UNHCR. Some open right up, cataloguing the hardships of life in exile, sharing concerns about their children’s future and even revealing marital problems. Once a woman dragged me to her tent and asked me to shout at her husband so he would not beat her again. Another couple sat me between them over tea and told me in detail why they were not getting along. I was their marriage counselor for the day.

I always think the ones who talk will probably be okay. I worry more about the quiet ones, like Heba.

We first met last year in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, at an exhibition of photographs taken by young Syrian refugees. Heba stood out from the crowd. Her big, green eyes were laden with sadness, and she appeared deep in thought despite the festive atmosphere.

I approached her and struck up a conversation about her daughter’s photographs. Slowly she opened up, telling me of her despair at not being able to send her two daughters to school. “Don’t think I am a bad mother, but sometimes I think it was so unfair to have them,” she said with a heavy heart.Hassan and Heba pose for a family portrait with their children – Hevy, 14, Asmahan, 9, and Jaafar, 4 – in their home in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. They fled Syria in 2013. UNHCR/Ivor Prickett

Life was different in Damascus, where she and her husband, Hassan, had good jobs and enough money to send their two girls to a good school. A newborn son, Jaafar, made them feel even more blessed.

But the war changed everything. Heba told me about the time her husband, Hassan, was kidnapped for the fifth time. And about the day a bomb fell on their daughters’ school. The girls escaped unharmed, but that was the last straw. The family fled to Lebanon.

They did not register with UNHCR at first because they felt that “others were more deserving of the aid,” Heba says. But two years on, having depleted their savings to pay for rent and food, they, too, rely on aid. To help put food on the table, Hassan has turned to one of his old hobbies, fishing. He goes out each morning – in snow, rain or sun – to catch food for the family.

Two years on, having depleted their savings to pay for rent and food, they, too, rely on aid.

I still go to see Heba and her family when I can. Meanwhile, we connect regularly through Whatsapp, the instant messaging app, checking up on one another.

As we were saying our goodbyes the last time I visited, Heba gave me a long hug and whispered in my ear: “I don’t know what the coming months and years might bring, but if anything happens to me or my husband, I trust only you in Lebanon to look after my children.”

What do you say to that? I stood there with a tear in my eye, reassuring her that they will all be fine.

Since then, Heba has managed to put her girls in school. Hassan continues to fish, with variable luck, and Heba and I continue to talk online, looking forward to the next time we can meet face to face.

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A New Home and a Helping Hand

After fleeing violence in the Central African Republic, Jacob’s family find a new home in Chad, where generous locals have greeted them warmly.Time seems to have stopped in Dilingala, a sleepy farming village in southern Chad. But for many local residents, including 40-year-old Nicolas, life is forever changing.

The violence ravaging the Central African Republic, just 50 kilometres from here, spilled over into Dilingala a year ago. Now, Nicolas hosts a refugee family whose home was burnt down, their cattle and property stolen. “People from Central Africa are our brothers,” he says. “They gave us shelter when our own country was at war. We owe them hospitality.”

“They gave us shelter when our own country was at war. We owe them hospitality.”

Nicolas has turned over one his eight cabins to a refugee family: Jacob, his two wives, their five children and his mother. They are restarting their lives with the help of Nicolas and other local villagers, as well as UNHCR and its partners. “With nine other households, we constitute a grouping,” Jacob explains, smiling. “We received from the Lutheran World Fund [LWF, a UNHCR partner] two oxen, a plough and a cart, and a set of axes and sickles. During the rainy season, we use the oxen in turns to plough our fields.”

The cattle and gear were provided in the form of a loan valued at 400,000 CFA francs, or about US $660. Jacob and his associates must pay it back in instalments once they start earning some revenue. The hope is that, through income-generating activities, refugees will become self-reliant – a necessity while conflict drags on in the Central African Republic and returning home remains impossible. Followed by villagers and fellow refugees from the Central African Republic, a grieving father carries the body of his eight-year-old daughter, who died of unknown causes. UNHCR/Olivier Laban-Mattei

Jacob and his family are among 500 refugees from the Central African Republic now living in Dilingala, joining the town’s 11,000 Chadian residents. Altogether, 16 local communities have take in 6,500 refugees since September 2013.

Having been farmers back home, Jacob and his family know how to grow millet, groundnuts and sesame. But their crops are still too meagre to feed the children. Even after bi-monthly food provisions from UNHCR and the World Food Programme, refugees must still rely on the generosity of locals like Nicolas, who, from the very beginning, offered everything they could. “We eat less and share our meals,” Nicolas explains.

“We eat less and share our meals,” Nicolas explains.

In addition to 19 refugee groupings, there are nine others made up exclusively of locals – who also need support in times like these. Nicolas himself belongs to one of them. “With the equipment provided by LWF, I have managed to increase production and improve my life,” he says.

By supporting refugees and their host communities alike, the programme helps to prevent envy and resentment between the two communities. Both villagers and newcomers have received building materials, such as thatch and straw bales to repair huts. UNHCR and its NGO partners have also built wells, latrines, storerooms and schools. “The success has been such that there is a real demand from villages to host refugees,” says Jean Bosco, a UNHCR programme officer based in Gore, Chad. David, who fled fighting in the Central African Republic, walks through a sacred forest in southern Chad.UNHCR/Olivier Laban-Mattei

To ensure social harmony, UNHCR avoids settling refugees in a village where they would outnumber more than a third of the Chadian population. Limiting the number of refugees in each community also helps reduce the impact on natural resources, especially scarce firewood. Longstanding cultural similarities also contribute to successful integration.

“We speak the same dialect and have the same Christian and animist beliefs,” says David, a representative for the refugees in Dilingala. He points to a sacred forest that is said to be inhabited by Dilé, the tree spirit. “Central Africans don’t dare cut wood from that forest either. They’re afraid of bringing some misery upon the village.”

Refugees here also acknowledge the authority of the local ‘earth-priest’. “Like the Chadians, we make him offerings so that in a few months there will be abundant rain,” says David.

“We speak the same dialect and have the same Christian and animist beliefs.”

In Dilingala’s main square, under the shade of mango trees, the market is in full swing. “It is much livelier than before the Central Africans arrived,” an old man says. Refugees and locals here receive credits to start small businesses. “I got 26,000 CFA francs [about US $43] from LWF,” says Ernestine, 32, a divorced mother of five. “Enough to buy flour, oil and sugar. I now sell donuts and can make up to 1,000 francs [US $1.66] a day.”

Refugees who do not receive LWF loans usually work in the fields, employed by locals at a rate of about 250 francs a day – less than US $3 a week. The extra workers are especially welcome during the tough cotton harvest. Economically, the district is thriving.

Nicolas, Jacob’s host, is optimistic for the future. “In two or three years’ time, God willing, Jacob and his family will be self-sufficient.”

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