A Burundian militia is crossing borders to terrorize refugees and infiltrate the aid agencies that are supposed to protect them.
- By Amanda SperberAmanda Sperber is a journalist living in Nairobi, Kenya.
NYARUGUSU REFUGEE CAMP, Tanzania – It’s an open secret that the Burundians here who fled the murderous political crisis that began in their home country in April 2015 have not fully escaped it. The Imbonerakure, Burundi’s version of the Hutu youth militias responsible for the Rwandan genocide, have been regularly crossing the border into western Tanzania to surveil and intimidate refugees.
Sospeter Christopher Boyo, a Tanzanian official who oversees Nyarugusu, the third-largest refugee camp in the world, acknowledges the group’s presence. So do the frightened Burundian refugees who eye their surroundings and lower their voices before they speak the name Imbonerakure.
Members of the notorious youth militia could be anywhere. It’s not just that they are sneaking back and forth across the border at night and into Tanzania’s refugee camps, refugees and aid workers say; Imbonerakure have also infiltrated the very organizations that are supposed to serve and protect the refugees, using their official positions to mount a subtle intimidation campaign.
“They are trying to collapse education” in the camps, a school inspector with the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC), said of fellow aid workers who are secret members of the Imbonerakure. The inspector, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, explained that these shadowy government agents aimed to demoralize refugee students and convince them they’re better off back in Burundi.
Unlike the last crisis in Burundi, a civil war that killed as many as 300,000 between 1993 and 2006, there is no all-out fighting this time around. Instead, forces loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza, including the Imbonerakure, have carried out targeted violence and oppression against those who opposed his decision last year to run for a controversial third term in office. They have burned shops and homes, shuttered media outlets, and frozen the bank accounts of prominent civil society organizations.
The repression continued after Nkurunziza’s disputed reelection in July 2015. Some anti-government protesters eventually took up arms, but it is mostly civilians who have borne the overwhelming brunt of the government’s abuses. According to recent reports from rights groups, civilians have been burned to death, gang-raped, and whipped with metal wires and steel rebar by government enforcers. Satellite imagery obtained by Amnesty International suggests that dozens of bodies have been buried in mass graves on the outskirts of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital.
More than 200,000 people have fled to neighboring Tanzania, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Nyarugusu refugee camp was already at capacity with about 61,000 refugees from Congo’s various wars; over the past year, it has absorbed about 100,000 more from Burundi.
“The population is over congested. It’s like three camps in one camp,” said Boyo. “You can’t keep track of everyone.”
That’s exactly what the Imbonerakure have been counting on. They blend in with the other Burundians in Nyarugusu, a sprawling tent camp located in the western Tanzanian province of Kigoma, about 80 miles from the Burundian border.
The government treats the repatriation of refugees in Tanzania as crucial to projecting the appearance of stability at home. “The Burundian government clearly sees the refugees as a political issue,” said Michael Boyce, an advocate at Refugees International. “Burundian agents and militia have blocked would-be refugees from fleeing the country — even arresting them, and physically or sexually abusing them at the border.”
Tanzanian immigration officers say the militiamen tromp through the Rurubu River at the thinly guarded Kagunga border crossing. Once in Tanzania, they surveil the refugee population, issue death threats, and beat and harass Burundians.
These scare tactics have the additional benefit of persuading the Tanzanian government, which has a history of expelling large groups of refugees, that hosting Burundians is more trouble than it’s worth.
The Imbonerakure have also infiltrated aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations in the camps. At a refugee school in Nyarugusu that is managed by the IRC, teachers and staff say that two former headmasters were members of the Imbonerakure. Both headmasters told students that “school doesn’t matter” and encouraged them to return to Burundi, according to two employees at the school.
Imbonerakure have also been hired as teachers, faculty members say.
“They barely teach,” one teacher said of his colleagues who are members of the pro-government militia. When he complained about their shiftless behavior to his superiors, he got death threats from the teachers he had reported.
“You may be killed at any time,” he recalls them saying.
Sensing the futility of reporting such threats to senior administrators at the school, some of whom were Imbonerakure or had ties to the youth militia, many teachers felt trapped. They considered taking their concerns to members of the IRC’s international staff in Nyagarusu, but decided against it because of the risk that their compromised Burundian colleagues might find out.
Finally, a group of six teachers turned to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) for help. In a two-page handwritten letter to UNHCR with the subject line “Letting know the danger,” the teachers detailed a litany of threats from the Burundian government, which “does not see with the good eye the success of refugees while keeping on their studies in exile.”
“We judge well to let you know we are in danger,” the teachers wrote. “In our everyday life we face obstacles to suspect for our lives. There are terrible words to dread us … The refugee camp is close to the Burundi frontier where there are the comings and goings of people from Burundi.”
UNHCR officials in Tanzania said the teachers’ letter was never received, and that in any case the U.N. cannot comment on specific cases for protection reasons.
The IRC says it conducts background checks on international and national staff, and that refugee staff are screened through reference checks. Former Burundian government officials are not barred from working at the organization as a matter of course, but they are screened for ethical as well as professional suitability.
Reached for comment about the specific concerns raised by the teachers in Nyarugusu, a spokesperson for the IRC who refused to be named, said, “We have clear and confidential mechanisms for reporting these kind of issues and we are looking into this case.”
Even as the Burundian government tries to force refugees to return home by sowing fear and subverting the humanitarian effort, new arrivals cross the border into Tanzania each day. In March, UNHCR said more than 1,000 Burundian refugees arrive in Tanzania per week. Mtendeli, a new camp three hours to the north of Nyarugusu opened after a third camp, Nduta, filled beyond the brim last October. So far this year, more than 47,000 Burundian refugees have been registered in Tanzania alone.
“You live with people but they don’t trust you. One day they might attack and kill you,” Topaz, a recent arrival in Nyarugusu, said of the situation back home.
Topaz said he fled Burundi after the Imbonerakure burned one of his friends to death. His family is already in Mtendeli, and he’s hoping to be reunited with them there soon. As of July, he was still stuck in a refugee processing center at the border. If he hasn’t already, he will soon discover that many of the same threats await him on the Tanzanian side.
Top image: STEPHANIE AGLIETTI/AFP/Getty Images