Brutal and Bloody Memories Haunt Burundi's Refugees

In Tanzania, a young man from Burundi builds a shelter with another refugee. UNHCR

Ernest's life in Burundi had many painful moments—the foremost being the murder of his entire family.

The young man, who withheld his real name, was told by a neighbor in his hometown over the phone last month that a group of thugs had thrown a grenade into his family's home, which detonated and killed everyone: his father, his mother, his beloved three younger sisters. In disbelief while at his university on the other side of the country, he tried again and again to call his parents that Saturday morning in late March, but they didn't pick up. He started to panic. He wanted to see what happened. But he knew it was still not safe for him to go home and pay his respects to his family, who had almost escaped the country's persistent violence.

"They were going to leave, maybe the next day, or the day after. They were organizing it. Just one day later, they might have been saved," he said, nearly breaking down. "Instead, my whole family is dead."

Ernest, a 20-year-old who said he was too afraid to give his real name, is now living in Tanzania, a refugee from Burundi's ongoing political crisis. Tens of thousands of his countrymen began fleeing to neighboring countries for fear of violence that might follow the announcement—which took place a year ago on Monday—that President Pierre Nkurunziza was going to run for a third term. Under the country's constitution, the president can be elected to only two terms in office. It was argued that Nkurunziza could run for a third term because he was initially appointed.

"Ernest," whose entire family was killed by a grenade, escaped from Burundi and is now living in Tanzania. UNHCR

Twelve months later, the flood of refugees from Burundi has slowed significantly, and news from inside the small central African country has dried up. To the outside world, it appears the situation may have stabilized.

But close to 2,000 Burundians still flee each week, most of them to neighboring Tanzania. The country now has some 135,000 shelters in camps, where a lack of funding leads to barely acceptable conditions. The stories these new arrivals carry as they reach safety paint a harsh picture of life in Burundi today.

During a week speaking with those in two camps for Burundian refugees in Tanzania, reporters from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—the U.N. refugee agency—heard account after account of fresh attacks, killings, torture and fear in Burundi, some of which occurred as recently as early April.

Why armed militiamen came for Nolasque Nduwimana, a 31-year-old history teacher at a girls' Catholic boarding school, was obvious. "Yes, I supported the opposition," he said. "Why should that mean I should be killed?"

Friends warned Nduwimana that his name was at the top of a hit list drawn up at local ruling party committee meetings. He planned to leave but wanted to complete marking his students' exams first. But he almost left it too late.

Close to midnight on Good Friday, five men broke into his room, forced him to the floor, pointed two machine guns at his head and were told to shoot him. In that moment, another teacher in a room down the corridor called out and distracted the gunmen. Nduwimana took the split-second chance to save his life and fled, barefoot, in his pajamas, grabbing his spectacles from the nightstand as he leaped through the shower-room window and ran.

A bookish man more used to libraries than forests, he spent three days sleeping outdoors and moving slowly to the border under cover of night. Disguised as a priest—"The church is all the militia respect anymore," he says—he slipped into Tanzania.

For the first days in a refugee camp there, he refused to leave his tent. Even now, his lips stiffen as he talks as he tries not to break down. This camp is too close to Burundi, he says. He wants to be moved further away. "People can find me here," he says. His lips tighten.

Nolasque Nduwimana is a history teacher who supports the opposition in Burundi. One night five men broke into his room and put guns to his head, but he managed to escape as they were distracted by another man. UNHCR

Abdul Yamuremye, 32, a scrap metal dealer, understands less why they came for his family. "I am just a businessman. I never wanted to be involved in politics," he says. "Maybe that was the reason: I did not belong to the ruling party. I have heard that is why people are killed."

On March 24, friends intercepted him as he walked to his house in the middle-class suburb of Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, with his wife, Hadija; their 6-year-old son; and their infant daughter. Don't go home, they said. Men with guns are there. They spent that night, the Thursday before Easter, at a mosque. The next day, Yamuremye went home, alone, to find his house a bloodbath, with his two brothers, a friend who stayed with them and her three children slaughtered.

In the kitchen he found the body of his friend, killed as she cooked dinner—beans, rice, chips—and prepared to take it to the others. "There was blood everywhere, but otherwise it was as it should be—the food, the pots, the tray," Yamuremye says.

In the sitting room, his brothers, 15 and 19, were machine-gunned as they watched television. Beside them, one of the children, a boy of 7, lay riddled with gunshots. "There were probably watching football," Abdul said. "He loved football." Outside were the bodies of the boy's two sisters, one just turned 10, the other a 2-year-old. No one was spared.

"There had been lots of strange boys around the neighborhood," he says. "They looked at me, then they rubbed their hands together like they were pretending to wash clothes. They said, 'We're going to clean you people from this place like this.'"

Yamuremye and his family arrived at a camp in Tanzania in mid-April. Their mental scars are fresh and need attention. The UNHCR, with partners led by the Tanzanian government, is providing basic counseling and psychosocial support to refugees but needs more help.

"The problem is that our donor appeal is so overwhelmingly underfunded that we are only barely able to provide shelter, household items, latrines, washing facilities. I'm talking about the very basics," said Dost Yousafzai, the head of the UNHCR's sub-office in Kibondo in Tanzania's Kigoma region, close to the Burundian border and to the three refugee camps.

To respond to the Burundi situation across the entire Central African region, the UNHCR estimates it needs $314 million. So far, donors have offered only $46 million, or around one dollar for every seven that is needed. "With that level of support," Yousafzai says, "it's things like counseling support for people who have survived horrific experiences, or education for children, or care for the disabled and the elderly, or protecting the environment around the camps, which very sadly fall by the wayside."

Manase Gahungu, a hospital pharmacist, says he was imprisoned for three months. He watched cellmates tied in ropes and taken outside at night. They never returned. He was tortured repeatedly, with men using knives to cut pieces of his flesh from his arm like meat. He eventually escaped after paying guards a $600 bribe.

Manase Gahungu was imprisoned for three months and repeatedly tortured, with men using knives to cut his arm. He eventually escaped after paying guards a $600 bribe. UNHCR

Sabine, a grandmother in her 50s who asked that her real name not be used, knows her husband was killed because he was "loyal and spoke up for injustice." She never got to bury him because she had to flee. "I have nightmares the dogs ate his body," she says.

A former security guard who gave his name as Davide says he saw minibuses used to carry bodies he thinks were buried in mass graves in the forest. "They were so many they were tied together with ropes so they did not fall out," he says.

Ernest, now in his second month as a refugee, says that his family's killers had earlier come again and again, demanding money that his father did not have. They said it was membership dues to join the ruling party. He thinks it was simple extortion.

"The world needs to be closer to the people of Burundi, especially those who are inside the country," he says. "People are dying today, and they will die tomorrow."

A version of this article first appeared on the UNHCR's Tracks platform. This version was published here as part of an editorial partnership between Newsweek and the UNHCR.