Following their refusal to adhere to Rwandan standards of data collection as required to process their status on Rwandan soil, Burundian asylum seekers have today been sent back to their country.
Rwanda government used dozens of passenger buses to ferry thousands of these Burundians to the border from where they walked back to a country they had run away from.
Numbering up to 2523, they on Friday rejected a set of rules and conditions to follow in order to qualify for asylum they had been seeking for since early March. Taarifa team drove to the border to witness the repatriation of these refugees back home.
At 8:22am, a Rwandan police officer manning the Nemba border post with Burundi opens the red painted metallic barrier. A fleet of 21 buses carrying 1290 Burundian asylum seekers drives through.
Babies are continuously crying in the buses. Some babies are suckling on their mother’s breasts. However, there seems nothing to be coming out of the breasts. Mothers look weak and miserable.
Their eyes are red. Others have white eyes, a sign of loss of blood and a possible sickness.
Children peep through rear windows to catch a glimpse of a border they have never been to. A young girl about 10 years old is holding a large blue rosary.
Her eyes are closed. She is in a deep prayer. A boy seemingly five years old is sitting on her laps. He is fighting with flies trying to feast on his running nose.
Behind her is an old man in his 50s leans against the rear window. He is scratching his arm infected with scabies.
Behind him is a young girl looking through the window projecting her eyes far in the bush, with her head leaning against her arm. She seems lost. She looks hopeless and deeply taken by a situation hard to described.
Buses line up in the no-man’s land as immigration offers inspect them. Refugees begin disembarking off the buses, one by one; all facing down to avoid eye contact with journalists. Swiftly an immigration officer begins a head count as they cross towards the Burundian side.
A check inside the buses is an awful odour -so unbearable. They seem to have missed showers for weeks. Their clothes are worn out. Only a few have shoes, others are walking barefooted.
They pick their baggages, many full of basic items such as basins, spoons, cooking pots, soap, and raged clothes. “Mom, please carry this,” a young girl tells her mother as they walk through the bus aisle. “Alright, you carry the jacket too,” the mother responds. But, “Wait for me,” the girl insist before commotion increases as the other passengers rush to disembark.
“Please hold your baby’s hand,” the Rwandan bus driver yells at the mother, realizing that the baby would be crammed.
The queue is elongating. Over 1000 have already lined up. The head of the line is already on the Burundian side and the tail of the line is still on the Rwandan side.
Border residents are in total shock as they watch just as immigration officers are observing the influx.
They begin to whisper. “Who are these people? Where are they coming from?” one Jean Claude asks a colleague.
“I heard these are Burundian refugees,” the colleague responds. Meanwhile camera shutter sound is tik-tak as journalists are taking photographs and videos. Snap, snap!. Shutter sounds going hard.
Suddenly the whole border area is swamped with these asylum seekers, largely women and children. A 57-year-old man, Cyril Nyabworo, is left in the bus to ensure everyone is gone and nothing is left.
Dressed in blue old pants, a torn black Polo t-shirt and a dirty checked jacket, Nyabworo turns back before stepping out of the bus and realises the driver was observing him. He smiles and they shake hands.
Before he takes a further step, the driver asks him if he has a family. “I had nine children, four died,” he says. “Why are you suffering, why don’t you stay here,” the driver interrogates further. Nyabworo, which means a son of the poor, smiles and breaks the ice.
“You see, I have to admit, Rwanda is good country. Clean. Better life. Good people. Enough food and advanced compared to Burundi, but we have decided to go back home,” says Nyabworo.
The driver doesn’t seem he wants to let the man go. He asks again. “So, why leave all that and decide to go back to a place you ran away from?”
Nyabworo looks down on the floor, then turns his head up and looks at the driver and says to him, “We couldn’t comply with demands made by Rwandan authorities.”
“Our faith does not allow us to accept anyone taking our bio-metrics or immunising our babies,” he explains.
Indeed Nyabworo and all the other asylum seekers have refused any medication, individual registration, immunisation and being fed with any food unless it part of what they believe is part of the diet that their religion allows them to take.
Olivier Kayumba, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs says these Burundians have made it difficult to receive any help.
They are part of the recent influx of over 2500 who fled to Rwanda early March from DR Congo under similar circumstances.
They had fled Burundi after clashing with President Nkurunziza’s security forces for failure to comply with local laws.
They can’t be registered. They also can’t accept medication nor agree to obey local laws that they believe are contrary to their beliefs.
Most of these refugees say they are Catholic Christians of a new kind of sect. They have a prophet who has told them that the Virgin Mary has spoken to her and ordered her to spread the word of God.
That they can’t be registered or be given medication because that is the job of the Lord.
In Rwanda, authorities were concerned these asylum seekers had carried with them diseases and infections that would spread across the communities near transit camps or people serving in the camps.
Signs of imminent diseases such as measles, diarrhea, scabies, and immunisable diseases such as Polio and Tuberculosis.
According to their beliefs, they also cannot take certain foods.
They don’t for example accept processed foods. No corn flour, rice, sugar, packed milk, powdered milk, salt, juices, biscuits and so on.
Rwanda National Police detained their representatives for questioning after authorities discovered they were instigating resistance.
A police officer told Taarifa that when he was holding them in the cell: “They told me that they want to eat potatoes, beans, and no salt or oil.”
He adds that they also requested for tea, but with Kabuye sugar. “They saw a sack of sugar written on Zambia and they refused to take the sugar,” the officer said.
“See, look at them, they are about to fall dead. They haven’t eaten for days. They need help, but how can we help people with this kind of problems and mentality?”
A Burundian Police officer is standing just one step near the borderline holding a low-resolution camera sending a live feed to his bosses in Bunjumbura.
He moves around documenting every move.
He projects the camera towards the Rwandan side to capture activities and a flock of journalists covering the event.
During press time, two other groups, one in Nyanza (over 500) and Nyarushishi (over 300) transit camps were preparing to voluntarily return home the next day (Monday).
“It doesn’t matter, I am not going to change, that’s my belief and I will stick to it,” says one lady who apparently was a senate in Nkurunziza’s previous term.
“We were well treated by Rwanda. Very well indeed, but we can’t go against our faith, that is why we have decided to go back home despite all fears of being persecuted, but it is our home. We will die from home,” adds another lady holding a placard with a photograph of Jeaus on the cross.
Meanwhile, Rwandan authorise are crisscrossing at the border to ensure a smooth handover of these Burundians.
Kayumba tells us that once the handover is completed, it is up to Burundian officials to settle the matter. “Our job is finished, they have arrived safely, that’s is the most important part,” he says.
No Burundian official is showing up for handover.
Kayumba says that the Rwandan government had held discussions with the Burundian ambassador to Rwanda and the UNHCR in Burundi prior to the handover. “It is well communicated and we have done our part,” he says.
Apparently, the leaders of this congregation had been left behind and here they are being ferried last.
Two ladies smile and wave at the Policeman standing by the roadside. They recall that he was actually the one on duty when they were detailed.
The officer smiles back and waves at them too. “Thank you for your hospitality, ” says one lady carrying a baby on her back, four plastic jerrycans branded with UNHCR, a mat, a sack full of items and a rosary.
Another baby is walking on one leg. The other leg is wounded. She is crying, but no single tear is dropping.
Her face is full of agony, fatigue and misery. She is holding a transparent kaveera (plastic bag) half full of invungure (boiled beans mixed with maize), what Kenyans call Gidheri.
From the face of it, she is too thirsty, but soldiering on. The whole situation looks like the biblical walk of the Israelis to the Promised Land.
Nyabworo has already crossed, but in his mind he must be wondering what a tragedy. He first ran to Mwanza in Northern Tanzania before trekking to Kamanyora in Eastern DR Congo and then to Rwanda.
Unless if his God is wicked, this is not what he and his whole congregation wished for.
Until 1pm, there were no signs of a Burundian official for the handover.
Rwandan authorities were earlier crisscrossing to ensure a smooth handover.
“We had done our part, the job is done,” Kayumba says.
A signpost planted at the roadside on the Burundian side is written on Welcome to Burundi…but these asylum seekers have no clue what is their fate.
No bus, no truck, no food nor water.
But as the old adage goes, East or West, Home is Best.