By Alain Ndayishimiye
Photo by Arnaud Gwaga Mugisha
I will be the first to admit I talk more about Burundi than the average person. I am intrigued by Burundian people from all walks of life, but I am even more intrigued by Burundians who’ve lived in Burundi for a long period of time. You’ll see why later on. The thing is I am genuinely interested in the current and future state of our country. It matters to me that Burundi is peaceful, politically stable and economically sound.
If you’ve read my previous posts, you probably already know that I did not have the privilege of growing up in Burundi. My parents were born there but both left in their teens in the early 70s. As most of us are aware, in 1972 an estimated three hundred thousand people, mostly educated and influential Hutus, were killed by the Burundian army. That figure includes my grandfather who was, according to my mother, a prominent businessman in Bururi at the time. That is how my parents left Burundi. They both resettled in Rwanda where they later met and married and had kids. I do not have much memories of Rwanda as I was a young boy, but ever since I can remember, I have always known that I was Burundian. Kirundi was spoken at home, although over time it got a mixed with Kinyarwanda. From Rwanda, we went to Tanzania, first in a refugee camp in Benako, not far from the Rwandan border, then later to another camp called Rumasi. That was in 1995. Rumasi is where I believe I started my first grade. The image of a refugee camp is what you can imagine. United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) tents were everywhere in addition to tons of other charitable organizations.
When we arrived in Rumasi, it was this massive empty lot with lots of trees surrounded by a few hills. On the south side, there was a muddy stream that overflew during rainy seasons and sometimes caused damages to houses nearby. Older kids used to go swimming in the stream on hot days. At the time, there were probably a few thousand families arriving at the camp. For us kids, the constant moving was simply confusing. As the case in many emergency situations, organizations reacted rather quickly distributing tents and food to families. One of my earliest memories of the time was spending the time with our entire family by the fire every night. When the fire lit, you could read hopelessness in the faces of many, particularly women. Before gathering by the fire, usually around 5:30pm, men would convene by the radio to listen to the news of what was going on back in Rwanda while the women prepared food. After the news, we all met and sat by the fire till we fell asleep late at night. Later on, life began to stabilize but nobody knew how long we were going to stay there for. Hospitals were built and schools were established. As time passed, somehow life began to feel normal.
After two years in the camp, Rwanda had become somewhat stable and the UNHCR started encouraging people to return to their homes. Here’s where the dilemma came with the Burundian people. They’d been refugees in Rwanda, escaped the country for Tanzania and became refugees for the second time. Returning to Rwanda was not a solution. It was not our homeland. At the same time, the situation was escalating in Burundi and so neither was going back to Burundi an option. In fact, there was an influx of Burundians running away from what was going on there and settling in a nearby newly established camp. A lot of Rwandans returned to their homes in Rwanda but Burundians continued to be puzzled as to what to do. As the majority of Rwandans left the camp, officials decided to close it down. We were then told to move to Lukole, the camp that had been set up to accommodate new Burundian refugees. Lukole was about five kilometres south of Rumasi. In 1997 all Burundian refugees moved there, then their third refugee camp in less than three years. Most of them lived there until 2009 when the camp was permanently closed.
A lot can be said about my experience as a refugee, but I will save you the details and stick to the big picture. The future of Burundi matters to me because of the exact experiences in those refugee camps. It matters because my parents never had the chance to raise their kids in their home country and I want that to be an option for me should I so choose. I know I am not the only one. There are thousands and thousands of other people with stories similar to mine. We have a generation of Burundians that, through no fault of their own, have never stepped on the Burundian soil, and even worse, some have no desire to do so. That to me is quite concerning. A friend of mine has sworn to never return to Burundi because of her experience there when she was younger. She’s not the only one either; I have distant relatives who feel the same way and rightly so. Mind you these are young, educated talented people whose skills and experiences Burundi can greatly benefit from.
We often hear of the “brain drain” issue. Burundi is a classic example of not just the drain, but a major lost if you ask me. Of course as the world becomes more open, we have to understand and accept that people will move and settle in countries other than their own. The problem with the Burundi situation is that a lot people did not necessarily move freely. As a result, we have people with very little cultural, economic or social ties to our country. These are the same people who are less likely to return let alone invest in our country – a big loss for us all. It matters that going forward, we should do our best to prevent situations like this. I find that those who move at their own accord generally have a stronger, more positive relationship with Burundi. They have fond memories of the country, and are likely to be invested in what is going on. That is not the case with many Burundians who left as a result of war. I have mentioned before that I enjoy speaking with those who’ve lived in Burundi for a long time. These are the kind of things I find out through these conversations. It matters to me that people, especially young people feel connected to our country. Given, we may not be able to reverse the past, but we can certainly work towards creating a future that is better than our past. When I hear of the current situation in Burundi and the “rumours” of arming of imbonerakure, I am reminded of stories from my mother from the late 60s and early 70s. That is how it all begun and a lot of us got to experience what became the end results of the whole ordeal. We must learn from history and not let ourselves repeat the mistakes of our past. We’ve already lost so much.
Alain currently lives and works in Edmonton, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter: @alainndayi