Approximately 310,000 Burundians were refugees at the end of 1999: about 290,000 in Tanzania, an estimated 20,000 in Congo-Kinshasa, and some 1,000 in Rwanda.

An estimated 800,000 or more Burundians were internally displaced.

Overall, 1.1 million people – one of every six Burundians – were uprooted at year's end, including more than 400,000 people who were newly forced from their homes during 1999. Despite the country's upheaval, some 12,000 Burundian refugees repatriated during the year.

Burundi hosted about 2,000 refugees at the end of 1999, including about 1,000 from Congo-Kinshasa and 1,000 from Rwanda.

Pre-1999 Events

Burundi's majority ethnic Hutu and minority ethnic Tutsi populations have struggled against each other for political and economic power for 30 years. A relatively small number of Tutsi elite have dominated the country's politics and military since national independence in 1962.

Periodic military crackdowns slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Burundians during the 1970s and 1980s. The victims were overwhelmingly Hutu. 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, triggering a wave of violence that 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 ruthless counterinsurgency tactics by the government military and Tutsi militia claimed an estimated 60,000 or more lives during 1994-98. Combatants regularly targeted sites housing uprooted Hutu and Tutsi.

Combatants on all sides committed "murderous acts" against civilian populations, a 1997 UN human rights report charged. The government military was "first and foremost" responsible for the country's violence, the UN report concluded.

The government forced up to 800,000 people, primarily Hutu, into designated "regroupment" camps during 1996-98 to deprive rebel forces of support in rural areas. Authorities closed most regroupment sites by the end of 1998.

Peace negotiations made no significant progress, and economic sanctions imposed by neighboring countries failed to dampen the conflict.

An estimated 800,000 Burundians were either internally displaced or were refugees in neighboring countries at the end of 1998.

1999 Violence and Politics

Burundi's civil war continued unabated in 1999. No estimates of the year's death toll existed, but certainly numbered in the thousands.

Rebels mounted regular attacks in southern and western areas of the country, as well as in prime refugee returnee areas in the east. Central and northern areas of the country suffered less conflict. The most intense military activity occurred in the outskirts of the capital, Bujumbura, causing heightened tensions there late in the year. The Burundian government repeatedly protested that rebels used neighboring Tanzania as a rear base for attack.

"Despite three decades of violence, five years of civil war, and a year of [peace talks]...Burundi today is still under the explosive pressure of antagonistic, sectarian, and fanatical forces," reported a local human rights organization, Iteka, late in the year. Burundians had "a feeling of imminent chaos," Iteka warned.

As in previous years, rebels and government forces committed large-scale atrocities against civilians. Rebels aggressively recruited young Hutu males into their ranks, and the government armed Tutsi civilians to patrol villages. International diplomats called for independent investigations of the worst massacres perpetrated by government soldiers.

"The army's prime response to activity by Hutu-dominated armed opposition groups appears to be indiscriminate reprisal killings against a population which they regard as suspect," Amnesty International reported.

Combatants on both sides deliberately uprooted civilian populations and targeted displacement camps for attack. Burundian "civilians are denied their basic right to live," a UN human rights report lamented.

Some 21 countries, including the United States, have provided $6 million in support of peace efforts since 1996 and have promised significant development aid if Burundi's combatants end hostilities. Despite hopes for a breakthrough, peace negotiations involving 18 Burundian political parties continued to stall during 1999. Combatants appeared to escalate the violence whenever peace talks showed hints of promise.

The chief international mediator in the peace talks, former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, died in October and was replaced by former South African president Nelson Mandela.

"Hope is in short supply in Burundi these days," the UN humanitarian coordinator for Burundi stated as the year ended.

Burundian Refugees and Returnees

An estimated 60,000 new Burundian refugees fled to Tanzania during 1999, joining hundreds of thousands of fellow-Burundians who were already in exile. Virtually all of the refugees, new and old, were Hutu.

Most new refugees departed Burundi during the final three months of 1999 as security deteriorated in border areas. Government troops reportedly attempted to block Burundians from fleeing the country because the military feared that many might be recruited into rebel ranks when they reached asylum. Rebel combatants reportedly forced many families into exile by burning their homes.

Many Burundians seeking to escape the violence spent weeks or months in the bush traveling circuitous paths out of the country in order to dodge combatants on both sides, Refugees International reported.

Most new refugees during 1999 fled from southern Burundi's Makamba Province, Gitega Province in central Burundi, and Kirundo Province in northern Burundi. In recent years, more than half of all Burundian refugees have originated from four provinces: Muyinga and Kirundo provinces in the north, Ruyigi Province in the east, and Makamba Province.

Despite the country's violence, at least 12,000 Burundian refugees voluntarily returned home during 1999 to less dangerous areas. Some 200,000 refugees have repatriated to Burundi since 1996, although unknown numbers of them may have fled again.

Most returnees settled into their home areas bordering Tanzania, including Ruyigi, Rutana, Cankuzo, and Muyinga provinces. Returnees received food rations of maize, peas, oil, biscuits, salt, and milk from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The main returnee provinces registered 10 percent malnutrition rates, according to a UN report.

Non-food humanitarian aid to returnees included blankets, plastic sheeting, water cans, soap, and hoes. UNHCR programs targeted 21 primary schools and two health centers for rehabilitation in returnee areas. UNHCR also planned to improve roads and assist in the construction of more than 2,000 new houses. UNHCR attempted to distribute identity cards to new returnees.

Repatriation slowed to a virtual halt late in the year as rebels mounted new attacks in returnee areas. UNHCR and other aid groups suspended assistance programs in many areas after rebels killed two international UN aid workers in October. UNHCR and other UN agencies evacuated all non-essential staff because of the killings.

UNHCR indicated that it would facilitate repatriations only to areas of Burundi that met three criteria: no insecurity for a considerable time; no forced population movements; and regular UNHCR access. As the year ended, the agency stated that no regions of Burundi fulfilled the three criteria.

Burundi's continued insecurity persuaded U.S. officials to extend temporary protected status (TPS) to several hundred Burundians for an additional year. Burundians in the United States have received TPS since November 1997.

Internally Displaced Burundians and Regroupment

Years of violence and government population relocation policies have left at least 800,000 Burundians internally displaced, including some 350,000 or more people who became newly displaced during 1999.

The country included at least three types of internal displacement: up to 200,000 people, primarily rural Tutsi, who have lived for six years in designated camps protected by government soldiers and armed militia; an unknown number of Hutu, probably tens of thousands, who have become displaced into the countryside or at makeshift sites for varying lengths of time; and nearly 350,000 Hutu whom the government required to live in so-called "regroupment" camps.

Burundian authorities have pursued two waves of forced population relocation, or regroupment. The first regroupment wave occurred during 1996-98 when the government moved at least a quarter-million Hutu into 50 camps scattered throughout the country. Some observers estimated that up to 800,000 persons lived in the regroupment camps at that time. Most regroupment sites closed during 1998, allowing occupants to return home.

The second wave of forcible regroupment occurred during late 1999. Authorities responded to rebel attacks near Bujumbura by requiring nearly 350,000 Hutu in and near the capital to move into about 50 regroupment sites. Approximately three-quarters of all residents of Bujumbura Rural Province were living at the designated sites as the year ended.

Government authorities argued that the camps were a temporary measure to protect civilians from attack and deprive rebel groups of food and lodging in rural areas. Burundian officials urged international humanitarian organizations to provide food, water, sanitation, and medical care to the sites. Burundian President Pierre Buyoya visited several sites in October and stated that conditions there were better than portrayed by aid agencies. The regroupment camps were "no dramatic situation," he assured.

Government soldiers reportedly killed at least six people who tried to leave regroupment sites or complained about camp conditions. Soldiers executed up to 36 people near a regroupment site in October. The military reported that it killed 15 alleged rebels attempting to infiltrate a civilian relocation camp. Soldiers regularly forced some camp occupants to perform free labor.

The international community condemned the Burundian government's policy of forced relocations. The U.S. government characterized the regroupment camps as "breeding grounds not only for disease and death but also for forces of resistance and opposition" to the government. The European Union deplored "the human rights violations, the loss of human lives, and the destruction of property that accompanied the relocation operation" and urged Burundian authorities to halt its regroupment policy.

Regional African governments in December called on Burundi's leaders "to immediately disband all regroupment camps." The main Burundian rebel group called the relocation sites "Nazi-style concentration camps" and insisted that they be dismantled as a prerequisite to cease-fire negotiations.

Some regrouped families received several days' advance warning of their relocation, but thousands were forced into the camps without warning and arrived with no possessions. Aid workers expressed concern that the forced relocations were preventing many families from working on their farms, leading to a likely food shortage in 2000.

Regroupment camps lacked adequate shelters, drinking water, and toilets. "Many are sleeping in the open air, and the climate is cold in the hills," UN World Food Program (WFP) official reported in October.

Refugees International reported that "crowding is intense" and "malnutrition is on the rise." Twenty percent of children under age five were malnourished at some regroupment sites. Cholera, dysentery, and malnutrition caused more than 200 deaths per week, according to one unconfirmed press account.

International humanitarian agencies struggled to determine how to provide much-needed assistance to regroupment camps without facilitating the Burundian government's forced relocation policy. One agency, Médecins Sans Frontières, suspended its work in the camps and charged that conditions "are still falling short of the vital minimum."

UN agencies were unable to work directly in the camps because of a self-imposed travel ban linked to security concerns during the final three months of the year. Other humanitarian agencies continued to provide food, vaccinations, and other emergency aid to the camps but complained that more than a dozen regroupment sites were inaccessible to relief trucks.

In addition to the nearly 350,000 uprooted Burundians in regroupment camps, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons throughout the country lived at other displacement sites or survived on their own.

Violence in southern Burundi's Makamba Province displaced 30,000 people in January and kept tens of thousands of other people there uprooted most of the year. Many newly displaced families in Makamba Province sought shelter in schools and local government buildings.

Government authorities characterized three displacement camps in Bujumbura as a security threat and closed them in October. Some 13,000 occupants of the camps returned home or sought shelter at other locations.

As in previous years, uprooted Burundians found that displacement camps were vulnerable to attack. A rebel raid killed 10 displaced persons in southeast Burundi in January. Rebel attacks against displaced Tutsi in northern Burundi's Kayanza Province and southern Rutana Province killed 18 persons in November. Many other attacks and deaths probably went unreported.

Only 12 percent of all internally displaced persons nationwide had access to potable water, and only 40 percent had latrines with appropriate sanitation, according to a UN report in November. Many displacement and regroupment sites offered only five liters of water per day per person – one-fourth the quantity considered standard to meet health and hygiene needs in emergency situations.

Despite the massive population displacement in Burundi, some uprooted families trickled back to their homes during the year in areas considered less dangerous. Relief agencies helped construct or repair nearly 4,000 homes for returning refugees and displaced persons.

General Humanitarian Conditions

Burundi's war and massive population displacement occurred in a context of wide-ranging impoverishment. Burundi ranks as one of the world's poorest countries even in times of peace.

Poor nutrition among displaced populations was often comparable to nutrition levels among rural Burundians living in their homes. Some 3 million people – nearly half the country's population – needed at least partial food assistance because of drought and war. Local crop production fell 6 percent during the year. Nutrition levels nationwide were "improving but precarious," the UN reported mid-year, before conditions deteriorated with the re-establishment of regroupment camps.

Health workers reported 800,000 cases of malaria in the first half of 1999, a significant increase over the previous year. One-third of the country's 300 health centers remained closed because of the war. One-third of all schools remained closed, and many functioning schools experienced serious teacher shortages. Years of upheaval have left a population of 7,000 unaccompanied minors, according to UN aid workers.

Relief agencies voiced concern that dimming hopes for peace and mounting numbers of uprooted Burundians might create a worse emergency. UNHCR cited "serious concerns about how the humanitarian situation could deteriorate."

The killings of two international UN relief workers and seven Burundians in October shocked aid agencies and slowed aid programs during the final three months of the year. The killings occurred during a UN humanitarian trip to southern Burundi's Rutana Province to assess the needs of 15,000 displaced Burundians who had not yet received assistance. International aid workers in Bujumbura suffered a wave of robberies and intimidation during 1998-99, resulting in evacuations of individual staff members.

Funding shortfalls also hampered relief efforts. UN agencies reported that they received only $14 million of the $83 million they requested for aid projects during 1999. International donors, dismayed by continued bloodshed in Burundi, provided virtually no new funding for "children in distress" programs or for "peace training" in displacement camps. UNHCR reported that its reintegration and rehabilitation programs "have experienced delays due to the uncertainty as to availability of funds."

Despite the impediments, UN humanitarian workers reportedly vaccinated 80,000 children, distributed food to an average of 410,000 persons per month, operated special feeding programs for 30,000 malnourished persons per month at more than 200 feeding centers and hospitals, provided agricultural aid to 300,000 families, and improved water and sanitation services for 50,000 Burundians.

Refugees from Neighboring Countries

Some 2,000 refugees from Rwanda and Congo-Kinshasa (also known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire) lived in Burundi at the end of 1999. An additional 20,000 Congolese who fled to Burundi in the 1960s continued to live in Burundi, but the U.S. Committee for Refugees no longer counted them as refugees.

Congolese refugees were a fluid population. Some 1,000 new Congolese refugees arrived in Burundi during the year because of civil war in their own country, but many of the new arrivals returned to Congo-Kinshasa after several weeks.

The government of Congo-Kinshasa claimed that Burundian authorities detained nearly 800 refugees who arrived by boat in Burundi in May, but Burundian officials insisted that the new refugees were "well-received."

Early in 1999, up to 4,000 Congolese refugees resided at Rugombo camp in northwest Burundi's Cibitoke Province, about 40 miles (70 km) north of Bujumbura. At year's end, however, fewer than 400 remained at the camp. Camp residents received maize, peas, biscuits, oil, and salt, as well as blankets, clothes, sleeping mats, water cans, soap, and cooking utensils. Aid workers at times required military escorts to reach the camp along the area's potentially dangerous highway.

More than 3,000 Congolese refugees repatriated from Burundi during the year, according to UNHCR.


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