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Burundian Refugees Find Solace on Familiar Shores

A boat carrying Burundian refugees approaches the Congolese village of Mboko on 12 May 2015.

A boat carrying Burundian refugees approaches the Congolese village of Mboko on 12 May 2015.
© UNHCR/Federico Scoppa

It’s 5 p.m. and the sunlight is fading in the Congolese fishing village of Mboko, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, when we spot two wooden boats on the horizon. Immigration officials and local residents tell us the boats carry refugees from Burundi, where political violence ahead of the presidential election has driven 105,000 people to flee the country in recent weeks.

“There is no peace” in Burundi, says 18-year-old Aline Sibomana, moments after stepping onto dry land. “Everyone is running everywhere. Students are not learning anymore. We are just staying at home. There is no peace. That’s why I decided to come here.”

Sibomana tells me she had been studying biochemistry in the capital, Bujumbura, and dreaming of becoming a nurse or a doctor. Now she doesn’t know what her future holds. She is one of 9,000 Burundian refugees who have arrived here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since April. She plans to return home if peace returns, but says she doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

The white sand beach here stretches for 90 kilometres between the towns of Uvira and Baraka, in DRC’s South Kivu province. It would make for a beautiful tourist destination. Instead, it’s been a recurring transit point for refugees fleeing to and from the DRC in 1972, 1993, 1996 and now, once more, in 2015.

“Many of the people in the village have been refugees in Burundi and in Tanzania,” says Kabue Donatien, the 51-year-old chief of Majengo, a village on the edge of Baraka. “We spend our time fleeing from one side to the other. But what did we do to God to deserve this?”

“We have been refugees as well. We cannot let another refugee suffer.”

For the past few weeks, Donatien has been trying to find ways to host those arriving from Burundi. Taking in refugees is hard on many families here, but a sense of solidarity leads them to share what little they have.

“Eighty per cent of the people of Majengo were once refugees in Tanzania and in Burundi, and many are still there,” says Donatien, who was himself a refugee in Tanzania from 1996 to 2009. “Everyone knows this situation. We have been refugees as well. We cannot let another refugee suffer.”

Flanked by two of his children, Venant Kabura holds his identity card in the Congolese village of Majengo, where his family found shelter after fleeing political violence in Burundi.

Flanked by two of his children, Venant Kabura holds his identity card in the Congolese village of Majengo, where his family found shelter after fleeing political violence in Burundi.
© UNHCR/Federico Scoppa

Venant Kabura and his family are among those receiving a warm welcome in Majengo. When they arrived from Burundi on 25 April, Kabura went to see the village chief, who provided them with a small house. They are now sharing it with neighbours from back home.

“It is already the second time we’ve fled” to the DRC, Kabura says. The first time they went to Mboko, where they lived from 1993 to 2013 and where all but the youngest of his children was born. They went back to Burundi, but now, just a year and half later, they have had to flee again.

“The chief of the village gave us this house,” Kabura says. “Here we spend the night without being worried by the war. We are well so far, and I want to stay here. The population welcomes the refugees. When we arrived, they welcomed us. They helped us a lot. All the pots, kitchen utensils, mosquito nets you see were given to us by neighbours. At first when we arrived they were also bringing us some things to eat, like cassava flour.”

Hoping to keep his feet dry, a man tightrope walks along the mooring line of a boat bringing Burundian refugees to Mboko, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Hoping to keep his feet dry, a man tightrope walks along the mooring line of a boat bringing Burundian refugees to Mboko, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© UNHCR/Federico Scoppa

But Majengo’s local residents are feeling the strain. Even Donatien, the chief, says he feels the burden. “We helped them,” he says. “We gave them the little we had. Even I remained without anything.”

To ease the burden on host families, UNHCR is working with the government to relocate refugees to a newly identified site near Mboko, where they will have access to schools, health centres and other needed facilities.

“If there is peace on the other side and if I can go back home, I can think again about realizing my ambitions.”

For now, the mood in Mboko is bittersweet. Burundians who arrived in recent weeks, and others who came years ago, gather on the beach to wait for the boats. Many Congolese, once refugees themselves, come too. Each time another boat lands and the newest refugees disembark, people embrace one another, grateful for their safe arrival but concerned about others who remain at risk in Burundi.

“If there is peace on the other side and if I can go back home, I can think again about realizing my ambitions,” says Sibomana, still hoping to resume her studies and pursue a career in medicine. “I already start guessing that life in refuge is not easy, and I already imagine that I will go through many difficult moments.”

By: Céline Schmitt