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Surviving Africa

  • 04 July 2006

Approaching the UNHCR refugee camp at Kakuma, in far north-western Kenya, is a bit like flying across the hottest, driest stretch of the northern Mallee in the fifth year of a drought. Over 83,000 refugees from countries including Sudan, Somalia, the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi live here, fed—inadequately, at the moment—by the World Food Program, and provided with housing, sanitation, schooling and counselling by eight non-government agencies, all overseen by a UNHCR staff of around 60 people.

On my second day at Kakuma I met Yolande Floride, a refugee from Burundi in central Africa, who works for one of the non-government agencies in the camp. In a tiny brick office, she described to me her journey from Burundi to Kenya. As a Burundian, she is not typical of the refugees I spoke to at the camp, but her story echoes others I heard from refugees, many of whom have attempted, sometimes more than once, to return to their own countries before resigning themselves to camp life.

Yolande grew up in Ngozi province of Burundi, the daughter of a mixed Hutu-Tutsi marriage. In mid-1993 she finished high school and was expecting to go on to Bujumbura University, where her boyfriend was already studying. Burundi’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye from the Hutu majority, had just taken office after nearly three decades of recurring conflict within the country. The fact that he was identified as a Hutu was significant, for the Tutsi minority had dominated politics and the military since independence.

But, as Yolande points out, we need to be careful of talking about Tutsis and Hutus as if they are two quite distinct and identifiable ethnic groups. The distinction between Hutus and Tutsis was sharpened and reinforced as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy by the Belgians, who ruled Burundi until independence in 1962. Sometimes, says Yolande, the differences in appearance are so slight that thugs from either side identify you by the part of the country you come from. ‘People are being victims of where they are living,’ she says, ‘and when your parents are mixed, you are rejected by both sides.’ In October 1993, before university began, Burundi’s President Ndadaye was assassinated in an attempted military coup. Violence broke out across the country, with Tutsis living in Hutu areas especially vulnerable to reprisals. An estimated 50,000 people were killed.

Yolande decided it was safest to go to the town where her boyfriend was studying.