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Unwelcome reunion: helped as children, Burundian adults are now refugees abroad

by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 17 April 2018 09:00 GMT

Maggy Barankitse, founder of Maison Shalom charity, with Tatania, a Burundian refugee student beneficiary of the charity at the Mahama camp in Rwanda. Photo taken April 5, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION / Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

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"Sometimes, I feel like someone rolling a huge stone up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top"

By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

KIREHE, Rwanda, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - During Burundi's brutal 12-year civil war, Maggy Barankitse set out to rescue as many children as she could. Through her efforts hundreds survived, and many returned to their communities after the war ended in 2005.

But today, with Burundi facing its most serious crisis in more than a decade, thousands of refugees have fled once more, this time to neighbouring Rwanda.

Among them are some of the children - now adults - who once lived at her Maison Shalom charity in Burundi, and who are again in need of help.

"It pains me to see them like this," said Barankitse, 61, shedding tears as she hugged refugees at Mahama camp, which lies about 140 kilometres (87 miles) southeast of Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

"Some of the children I cared for who stayed back in Burundi have been killed," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Sometimes, I feel like someone rolling a huge stone up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top, and I wonder if I'm condemned to do this all my life ... but I choose always to be the light in the darkness," she said.

The small and impoverished Central African nation of Burundi has been unstable since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a third term in office that his opponents said was unconstitutional.

The resulting violence has left hundreds dead and forced at least 400,000 people into exile. Around 174,000 of them are in Rwanda, with Mahama camp in Kirehe district hosting 60,000.

Burundian refugee Arlene Nifasha with her son at the Mahama camp in Rwanda, April 5, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION / Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

About 60 to 80 more people arrive weekly, said Samuel Bigirmana of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. He said the last 200 of Mahama's 19,520 mud-brick houses would soon be occupied.

"Now, this camp is full ... We are negotiating with the government of Rwanda to allocate another camp," said Bigirmana.


Thirty-year-old Arlene Nifasha was one of hundreds who arrived at Mahama camp with her two children last November. Her husband stayed behind in Burundi.

"Women from the ruling party kept trying to force me to join them. They threatened that they would slash my neck again if I didn't," Nifasha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nifasha was just five when, during Burundi's civil war she was hacked with a machete and left for dead.

Barankitse found her, and flew her to Germany for surgery that doctors initially considered hopeless; it saved her life, but left her face and neck severely scarred.

Now, in a refugee camp with a child aged 6 and another just 17 months, Nifasha struggles to get by. But she is hopeful that the skills she will soon be learning at a sewing workshop being organised by Maison Shalom will help.

Burundian refugees help to lay bricks for a building at the Mahama camp in Rwanda, for a workshop and restaurant sponsored by the Madison Shalom charity that will be run by refugees. Photo taken April 5, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION / Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani

The steady stream of refugees to Mahama is a concern for camp manager, Murebwayire Goreth, who worries about the shortage of food.

At least five refugees were killed and 20 injured at the Kiziba camp in western Rwanda in February when a protest over a cut in food rations turned violent. The 25 percent cut implemented by UNHCR due to a lack of funding has also caused difficulties at Mahama.

"It is a problem managing the people not eating," said Goreth, who works for Rwanda's disaster management ministry.

But, he says, responsibility lies with the United Nations.

"There's little the government can do. It's for the U.N."


Two years ago, Barankitse was awarded the inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity in recognition of her work caring for orphans during Burundi's civil war.

"Even the times a child had only five minutes to live, I asked the doctors to let me carry him in my arms and show him love," Barankitse said of those times.

Ironically, in 2015 Barankitse was forced to flee Burundi. Since then she has lived in Rwanda where her charity provides jobs and education for refugees.

Maison Shalom used some of the million-dollar Aurora award proceeds to open the Oasis of Peace restaurant in Kigali. It is run by refugees, and is a place other refugees can learn to cook.

Among those working here is Modeste Nahimana. Another survivor of Burundi's civil war, Nahimana was just eight when she was badly injured in a machete attack that killed her mother and sisters.

Barankitse took her to Italy for surgery that saved her arms. Today, Nahimana works the counter at the restaurant, taking orders and serving meals to a steady stream of customers, a smile on her face.

"I feel at home here," said Nahimana, stroking the extensive scars on her two arms.

"Everybody here has their own story."

Maison Shalom is currently building another restaurant - at Mahama camp. Like this one, it will be run by refugees; it will cater for the staff of charities who work at the camp and who currently have to travel miles to eat.

The same building will house a workshop, where refugees can learn to sew.

"I see my children like Arlene (Nifasha) and it breaks my heart," said Barankitse as she watched refugees mixing concrete and laying bricks for the new building.

"When will it ever end?"

(Reporting by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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