Approximately 280,000 Burundians were refugees at the end of 1998: about 260,000 in Tanzania, some 20,000 in Congo-Kinshasa, and nearly 1,000 in Rwanda.
An estimated 500,000 Burundians were internally displaced.
About 5,000 refugees from Congo-Kinshasa were in Burundi at year's end.
Burundi's majority ethnic Hutu and minority ethnic Tutsi people have lived side by side for centuries, often peacefully, at other times amid communal and political violence. Tutsi have dominated the country's politics and military since national independence in 1962.
Burundi's first democratic elections in 1993 produced a Hutu president. Elements within the Tutsi-dominated military assassinated the president and other high-ranking Hutu government officials in late 1993. The wave of violence that followed killed 30,000 to 50,000 persons of both ethnic groups.
A 1996 coup eliminated the last vestiges of Burundi's democratically elected government and shifted power back to Tutsi elites. An insurgency by Hutu rebels and atrocities by the government military and Tutsi militia claimed an estimated 50,000 or more lives during 1994 97. Such attacks regularly targeted uprooted Hutu and Tutsi.
Combatants on all sides committed "murderous acts" against civilian populations, a UN human rights report charged in 1997. The government military was "first and foremost" responsible for the country's violence, the UN report concluded.
Security improved in some areas during 1997 despite continued warfare. Burundian officials claimed in late 1997 that 12 of the country's 15 provinces were safe, and tens of thousands of refugees repatriated. Cautious peace negotiations began among various sides in the conflict. Neighboring countries maintained an economic embargo against the Burundi government to demonstrate regional opposition to the 1996 coup that brought the government's leaders to power.
1998 Violence and Politics
As in previous years, much of the violence and atrocities in Burundi remained relatively unreported during 1998. Government officials often blamed rebels for atrocities committed by government troops, according to human rights investigators. Despite difficulties in gauging the scale of violence and the number of deaths, most observers agreed that the scope of violence declined during the year.
Serious splits existed among three rebel groups and their estimated 5,000 to 10,000 combatants. Divisions also appeared within the Tutsi dominated ruling party. Combatants on all sides used harsh tactics against civilians suspected of disloyalty – killings, rapes, disappearances, and forced relocations were common tactics.
The year began with a startling rebel attack on the main airport near the capital, Bujumbura, that left 300 people dead at the hands of rebels and government troops. Violence shifted primarily to southern Burundi in mid-1998, but rebel attacks and government counterinsurgency near Bujumbura increased again late in the year.
Attacks by unknown perpetrators killed more than 40 people near Bujumbura in October. Government officials acknowledged that their troops massacred more than 50 unarmed civilians about 30 km (about 20 miles) outside Bujumbura in November; other sources estimated the massacre killed more than 100. In southern Burundi, heightened insecurity led some international aid agencies to temporarily evacuate their staff.
The UN Security Council condemned the escalating violence in November and called for a cease-fire. USCR and other human rights organizations urged the UN to impose an arms embargo against all sides and to take other steps to restrict arms flowing into the country.
Peace negotiations involving 15 groups plus the government proceeded slowly during the year, without a major breakthrough. Economic sanctions imposed since 1996 by neighboring countries remained in place, although an end to sanctions appeared imminent as the year ended.
Internally Displaced Burundians
The number of internally displaced Burundians remained approximately the same during the year despite massive new population movements. Up to 200,000 displaced people returned to their homes, but an equivalent number became newly uprooted by violence in northwestern and southern regions of the country.
Burundi's estimated half-million displaced persons – nearly 10 percent of the country's total population – included at least four types of displacement: up to 200,000 people, primarily Tutsi, who lived in designated camps protected by government soldiers and armed militia; thousands of Hutu whom the government required to live in so-called "regroupment" camps; an unknown number of Hutu displaced into the countryside or at makeshift sites; and thousands of repatriated Hutu refugees unable to return to their homes because conflict continued there or their property was destroyed.
Government policy to move Hutu residents into temporary regroupment camps began in 1996 and accelerated in 1997, when a peak of more than a quarter-million people resided in about 50 regroupment camps scattered throughout the country. Some observers estimated in 1997 that up to 800,000 persons lived in the camps.
Government authorities argued that the camps protected civilians, but many families were forced into the regroupment centers. Government troops reportedly killed thousands of people who resisted transfer to the camps, according to Human Rights Watch, and soldiers terrorized and killed some camp occupants. International aid groups, opposed to the government's regroupment policy, declined to provide significant assistance to regroupment sites.
Government officials began to close some regroupment camps in late 1997, enabling thousands of occupants to return home. The closures accelerated during 1998. By year's end, the majority of camps had closed and were "no longer a major issue," according to humanitarian sources.
Some regroupment sites continued to operate, however, and new regroupment camps opened during the year in heavy conflict areas of southern and northwestern Burundi. Aid workers reported that government authorities at some closed camps barred families from returning home and forced them to settle into new villages.
Even as regroupment camps shut down, however, new population upheavals occurred elsewhere. Burundi's ongoing war forced 10,000 people to flee their homes on the outskirts of Bujumbura in early January. Most fled into Bujumbura city. Additional violence near the capital a week later uprooted 8,000 more people.
"Innocent civilians are clearly the targets," UNHCR reported. "Most are women and children who are being chased further and further from their homes."
Additional incidents of major displacements reported during the year included: up to 18,000 people uprooted near the capital in late March; some 15,000 persons newly displaced east of Bujumbura in April; and 13,000 uprooted in the northwest in July. Scores of unreported incidents produced tens of thousands of additional displaced people.
Some displaced families managed to return home within days when local security improved. In other cases, families farmed their fields by day and fled into the fields or to other safe locations each night to avoid surprise attacks. Some residents of displacement camps received government permission to continue growing their own food.
Camps at which displaced persons gathered remained prime targets for attacks by all sides, as in previous years. The government accused insurgents of killing 20 people at a displacement camp about 40 km (nearly 30 miles) from Bujumbura in early February, and massacring nine people at a large camp in late February. Government troops reportedly killed six residents of a displacement camp in northern Burundi in May.
In August, up to eight people died when combatants attacked a camp for displaced families in the northwest. Fourteen people died and 400 huts were destroyed when armed attackers raided another camp in the northwest in October. A new camp for 7,000 uprooted people 20 km (12 miles) north of Bujumbura, established in September, suffered two attacks in November, resulting in 30 deaths, hundreds of homes burned, and aid supplies destroyed.
Attacks on displacement sites continued through the end of the year. In December, a raid in northwest Burundi killed 60 displaced people. Some 25 residents of a camp were killed in an attack about 80 km (about 50 miles) south of Bujumbura. Government soldiers responsible for protecting displacement camps reportedly committed rapes and other human rights abuses against camp occupants.
Humanitarian aid to internally displaced people varied enormously. Highway ambushes and concerns about landmines hindered aid efforts at times. An international aid worker for WFP was killed in an apparent robbery in Bujumbura, and death threats against aid workers were common.
Aid officials reported malnutrition rates of up to 21 percent among children at some displacement camps in the northwest, and mortality rates at some sites were far above normal because of poor conditions and meager relief supplies. At other locations, however, aid programs were substantial, and health conditions were reasonably good. UNHCR was one of many agencies that provided assistance to internally displaced families.
By year's end, the geographic pattern of internal displacement had changed markedly. The number of uprooted people declined by about half in several north central provinces such as Karuzi and Kayanza, while displacement increased dramatically in southern and northwestern areas, including near Bujumbura. An estimated 70,000 residents of Bujumbura Rural Province were displaced. The number of people uprooted in the northwestern province of Bubanza reportedly tripled.
More than half of all displaced persons were children, UNICEF reported.
Burundian Refugees and Returnees
As Burundi's conflict shifted geographically during the year, new refugees fled from some areas while refugees repatriated to other areas.
An estimated 20,000 new refugees fled to neighboring Tanzania during the year – the actual number might have been much higher – while nearly 15,000 other Burundian refugees repatriated from Tanzania. Some 7,000 new Burundian refugees fled to Congo-Kinshasa, while about 10,000 returned from Congo-Kinshasa because of that country's renewed civil war.
Refugees who fled to Tanzania often encountered landmines along the border and frequently suffered gunshot injuries and wounds from machetes used in Burundi's conflict. Some refugees were malnourished after weeks of hiding in the bush. Many Burundians fleeing to Congo Kinshasa also suffered malnutrition, UNHCR reported.
Returnees to Burundi, especially those returning to western regions, often suffered continued hardship and displacement, and the threat of new attacks lingered.
A Tripartite Agreement among Burundi, Tanzania, and UNHCR in March agreed to facilitate repatriation to Ruyigi Province in eastern Burundi. UNHCR, however, refused to encourage repatriation to other provinces because dangerous conditions prevailed there. UNHCR reported that its priority in Burundi was providing reintegration assistance.
Refugees from Congo-Kinshasa
The number of Congolese refugees in Burundi became unclear during 1998.
Thousands of long-time Congolese residents of Burundi, well integrated into Burundian society for more than two decades, suddenly sought refugee status. Thousands of long-term Congolese residents suddenly departed Burundi and returned to Congo-Kinshasa. Several thousand new Congolese refugees, meanwhile, entered northwest Burundi in the final half of the year, fleeing renewed civil war and ethnic conflict in their own country.
At least 2,500 new Congolese refugees arrived in August, UNHCR reported. Additional Congolese entered Burundi later in the year. Up to 7,000 refugees reportedly resided at two sites in Cibitoke Province in northwest Burundi, according to some sources. Other sources indicated that many Congolese left the camps, either to live on their own in Burundi or to return to Congo-Kinshasa.
As a result, the actual number of Congolese refugees at year's end was unclear. Estimates ranged from several thousand to as many as 20,000.
Burundian authorities forcibly returned five Congolese refugees to Congo-Kinshasa late in the year. The five refugees were associates of a Congolese governor, who also had fled to Burundi. UNHCR protested the involuntary return.