When Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a controversial third mandate in April 2015, he sparked a major crisis and many demonstrations. Since then, hundreds of people have been killed and more than 300,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring countries. Our reporters, Nicolas Germain and Julie Dungelhoeff, despite a few visa problems, met Burundian refugees in Uganda and Tanzania.
If we had watched this scene in a film, we would have thought the screenwriter was pushing it a bit. Yet this is really what happened. Our plane was moving on the runway of Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. Destination Kigali, the Rwandan capital. We were just about to put our phones on airplane mode. That’s precisely when the phone rang.
"I’m from the Rwandan embassy. I’m calling you to tell you that your visas have been cancelled."
"Sir, that’s impossible. We’re on the plane. We’re about to take off."
"I repeat, your visas have been cancelled. Get off the plane, you won’t be able to enter Rwanda, immigration services have been warned."
End of conversation. A few seconds later the plane takes off.
So we got off at the stopover in Istanbul. A month after this incident, the Rwandan embassy has yet to give us an explanation for this dramatic U-turn.
This decision can only reinforce the suspicions of UN experts who allege Rwanda is recruiting Burundian rebels in refugee camps. Indeed, we had said we were working on the crisis in Burundi and its consequences: more than 300,000 refugees are now living in neighbouring countries including Rwanda.
Burundi refused to give us a visa. Rwanda, as we just saw, did the same. So we went to Uganda, and Tanzania - which is the country which hosts the most Burundian refugees.
In April 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza, who had been in power for a decade, announced he was running for a contentious third mandate. For several weeks afterwards, thousands took to the streets to protest. A violent repression ensued. In the months that followed, major figures from both the ruling party and the opposition were shot dead. During that time, several hundred people were killed, most of them opposition supporters, and there was a mass exodus of Burundians.
They cross the border with just one bag on their head
We arrive in Tanzania, in the Kigoma region. Currently there are three Burundian refugee camps in the country. But nearly two years after the start of the crisis, some 10,000 Burundians still arrive here every month. We see some early one morning. They cross the border with just one bag on their head, carrying very young children. They have walked for hours and are absolutely exhausted. They say they’ve been threatened by the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth league – a “militia” according to the UN. “They tell us to leave otherwise they’ll slaughter us!” says one refugee. Burundi is a small country but very populous, and the flight of refugees is a bonus for those who then seize their plots of land.
View of Lake Tanganyika, from the plane. Some refugees arrive in Tanzania by boat. © © N. Germain, J. Dungelhoeff
The port of Kigoma, in Tanzania, which some Burundian refugees reach by boat. © © N. Germain, J. Dungelhoeff
Mabamba, on the border between Tanzania and Burundi - which we were not allowed to enter. © © N. Germain, J. Dungelhoeff
Two trucks bogged down not far from the Burundian border… and which held us up for quite a while! © © N. Germain, J. Dungelhoeff
The Nduta refugee camp in Tanzania, which hosts 85,000 Burundians. © © N. Germain, J. Dungelhoeff
A bar in Kampala where Burundian refugees like to meet up.
Burundi refused to give us a visa, but the president’s main advisor, Willy Nyamitwe, answered our questions via a journalist based in Bujumbura. This is what he had to say about the Imbonerakure: “Those who are outside the country say they were arrested at nighttime by the Imbonerakure, it’s absolutely not true. I’m a former Imbonerakure, the president is a former Imbonerakure. All the hopes of the Burundian people today depend on the solidity, bravery and patriotism of the Imbonerakure.
'They beat us like we were animals'
We then head for Kampala, the Ugandan capital. A 20-hour drive on both tarmac and dirt tracks. Only one puncture. Later, two trucks got bogged down, blocked the road, and we had to spend the night in the car… The road follows the borders of Burundi and Rwanda. The Great Lakes region is undoubtedly one of the most stunning in Africa.
Those who have fled to Kampala, rather than Rwanda which is closer, say it’s because life is cheaper than in Kigali and they feel freer here. In the Ugandan capital, we meet young men who were tortured by the regime in Bujumbura.
In the city centre, there’s a rooftop bar where Burundian refugees like to gather. One man tells us what he had to endure. “There was a large red container, they put us in it, then they threw tear gas inside to make us suffer. Then they closed the container. We suffered inside it all night. We weren’t considered as human beings, they beat us like we were animals.” A few days later he managed to escape to Uganda.
UN warns of genocide
The next day, in another Burundian bar, we met two young soldiers who had fled. They were studying to become part of the army’s elite, but as Tutsis they felt increasingly threatened. The authorities asked them who they were really working for. There were more and more openly anti-Tutsi speeches. One of the soldiers showed us a photo on his phone of one his best friends. “He’s a Hutu, I’m a Tutsi, they have already transformed him mentally, he’s afraid of me and now I’m afraid of him.”
Nyamitwe strongly rejected reports by UN experts and human rights organisations that say there is a risk of genocide in the country.
But recent history doesn’t make observers optimistic. This last half-century, the region has witnessed a cycle of ethnic massacres. The worst one was the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. But in 1972, 100,000 Hutus were slaughtered in Burundi, including the father of the current president.
Before going to this region, we went to Belgium, Burundi’s former coloniser. This is where many of Nkurunziza’s one-time allies, and human rights activists, have fled to.
The most famous Burundian activist is Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, who miraculously survived an assassination attempt in August 2015 in Bujumbura. He recognised the man who fired several bullets at him and wounded his face and neck: the shooter worked for the National Intelligence Service.
In his small flat in Brussels, far from his country to which he hopes to return one day, Mbonimpa speaks in a calm yet determined voice. "I don’t want Nkurunziza to die, I want him to face justice first. A country without justice cannot live in peace."
On October 12, 2016, the Burundian parliament voted massively in favour of a withdrawal from the International Criminal Court.
Two months later, President Nkurunziza said he may stand again for a fourth term in 2020.