Political turmoil and violence in Burundi in recent decades have driven hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country. The latest flashpoint came in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term, despite a two-term limit being set out in Burundi’s constitution. Protests were met with a brutal crackdown, driving more than 400,000 people from their homes and into neighbouring countries. Intimidation, extortion, torture and murder have all been reported by Human Rights Watch.
More than 200,000 Burundian refugees now live in overcrowded camps in north-west Tanzania. We know older refugees may encounter barriers to accessing the support they need. That’s why our work in Tanzania begins at the refugee reception for new arrivals at the Nduta and Mtendeli camps. UNHCR directs older women and men to us when they are registering so we can find out about physical and mental health, what medication they need and if they have any specific nutritional requirements. We make sure they get the support they need, that their independence is upheld and their voices are heard.
Our operation is based out of safe and inclusive social centres within the camp where people of all ages are welcome, but we also reach out directly into communities to reach those who can’t reach our centres to ensure no one is left behind. Here, we tell the story of three older refugees who fled Burundi and ended up in one of our centres.
Ninzizi, together with her daughter Emelyne and son-in-law Theogene, fled Burundi for the second time when violence flared up in 2015.
Ninzizi is unable to walk and cannot speak, which her son Theogene attributes to mental health problems she has suffered over the years. Of her nine children, only Emelyne survives, and four were killed during the country’s civil war. When she went to a hospital in Burundi, they didn’t tell them what the problem was. She was only given some medication and an injection to help with her walking, but since arriving in the camps she has got better.
“She couldn’t sleep well in Burundi, but here she is getting more rest. She is on medication that is provided by the Red Cross. Her mental illness has not improved much, but her mobility is improving,” Theogene said.
HelpAge makes sure Ninzizi can access the health services she needs by driving her to the clinic. We also provided her with a one-off cash payment of 30,000 Tanzanian shillings (US$13), which she used part of to buy a walking stick to help her get around.
Theogene and his family invested the money in a business buying and selling avocados, using the profits to supplement their rations from the World Food Programme.
“The money we get from selling the avocados is so important and I wouldn’t have been able to start that business without the cash transfer.”
Augustin has fled Burundi 13 times, and he had to escape again in 2015 when the Burundi Government suspected he was an opposition party member. “The imbonerakure [the Government’s violent youth wing] tried to hurt me. I was in my house and a group of soldiers surrounded it and I chose to run away and come to Tanzania,” he said.
“I went to my local church to ask for money to get to Tanzania. I told them I was coming for health treatment for a problem I have with my foot, not due to the political situation.
“I couldn’t tell the church the truth because I didn’t want them to follow me. If I told them I was running due to political unrest, the imbonerakure would follow me.”
Augustin’s plan worked. He made it to Tanzania after walking 20km over two days, despite a problem with his foot causing it to painfully swell up and cause great difficulty getting around.
By the time he arrived at Nduta, he couldn’t walk or even get a shoe on. But since receiving medical help at HelpAge’s clinic, his condition has improved a lot. He still needs crutches to get around, but we provided him with new ones to improve his comfort, and we make sure he can access services in the camp by transporting him in a tuk-tuk.
The trauma of fleeing Burundi took its toll on Augustin, affecting his mental health. But he has been getting support in our inclusive centre in the camp.
“I like to join others in dancing to help relieve my stress. I enjoy it so much it makes me not worry about my disability. It’s great coming together as community. We exchange ideas,” he said.
“I am the leader of our dancing group – we had an election and I was picked. They see me as a wise man who can present the ideas and concerns of the community well to HelpAge.”
When seven civilians were killed in political violence close to her home, Dafrusi decided she had to flee. The journey was difficult, with their group bound for the Tanzania border facing attacks from the imbonerakure on the way.
But when she arrived, the persecution took a new form – her neighbours in the camp accused her of being a witch.
“One neighbour asked to borrow money from me and she didn’t return it. She started spreading rumours that I did not flee Burundi due to the unrest but because I am a witch,” she said.
“When she started spreading the rumours, the community started to isolate me.
“[I] had no place to go or friends to speak to. They ignored me because they thought I would poison their children. They threatened to kill me if I did not leave.”
We called a meeting in her community to put a stop to these accusations, raising awareness about how damaging, false and unacceptable witchcraft accusations are. We spoke to the people with power in the community – the leaders, the village chairperson and the head of the zone she lived in.
“From the time HelpAge held the meeting to now, I have faced no troubles. Now I can speak to them, friends visit and we tell stories to each other,” Dafrusi said.
“Some people have even apologised, saying it was a devil that made them suspect me as a witch. I even talk to the woman who started the rumours – she returned the money.
“If HelpAge had not have got involved, I would have been killed. Someone told me they were organising to burn me in my tent.”