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Threats Of Renewed Civil War Forces Thousands To Flee Burundi


Where there is war there are refugees fleeing war. More than 100,000 people have fled from the African nation of Burundi to neighboring countries, though they're not running from war but the terrible promise of one. At a refugee camp in Rwanda, NPR's Gregory Warner found that for many, the decision to leave began with a knock on the door.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: For Fidel Mukiza, the knock on the door was at his neighbor's hut. Around a dozen men with machetes entered, threatened the inhabitants, killed two people. The militiamen were neighbors themselves in the village of Chirondo in the south of Burundi.

FIDEL MUKIZA: (Through interpreter) We know them. They live among us, but at night they come around and attack.

WARNER: It felt like a return of a long civil war in Burundi where neighbors killed neighbors along ethnic lines.

MUKIZA: (Through interpreter) They told us if the war begins again, they'll wipe us out.

WARNER: Then as now, Mukiza fled north for safety, to Rwanda. He's been living for a month at a refugee camp called Mahama set up by the Rwandan government. More than 24,000 people have fled here to stay with little food or water in hundreds of white plastic tents on the green hills.

But there is a no war yet in Burundi. There is a president, Pierre Nkurunziza, who says he's running for a third term in office, despite a constitution that limits him to two. And there is a countrywide youth militia, armed and answerable to the president that, from the stories people here at the camp tell, are authorized to kill or intimidate anyone who does not support the president's campaign. These militia are called the Imbonerakure, which can be translated as the visionaries.

Divin Mugisha is a 28-year-old university student from Burundi's capital. His first response to the president's announcement to run for a third term was to join his fellow students in protest. Burundi, smaller than the state of Maryland, is one of the poorest and hungriest countries in Africa. Mugisha blames this in part on the 10-year reign of President Nkurunziza. But when the protests began, the campus was surrounded by armed men.

DIVIN MUGISHA: (Through interpreter) The students decided if they go back home, they'll be killed. That's when we decided to go to the embassy.

WARNER: They took their protest outside the U.S. Embassy. They figured they were safer if the Americans could see them. But then how to feed the protesters? A 43-year-old pharmacist volunteered to bring them food in his car. Driving away, he met that armed presidential brigade. His wife, Marijean Chimerimana, tells what happened.

MARIJEAN CHIMERIMANA: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: "After they stopped his car," she says...

CHIMERIMANA: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: "They killed him on the road."

CHIMERIMANA: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: "And then they burned the car." The widow cuts a striking figure in this refugee camp in her bright orange sun dress and matching patent leather shoes. When she cries, her tears are hidden by leopard print sunglasses that have little silver leopards on the hinges. She says the day her husband was killed, she was at a party.

CHIMERIMANA: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: "I was wearing this dress at the party," she says, "and these shoes."

CHIMERIMANA: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: She was then told by friends that she could not go to her car because people were there waiting for her and her children. Two days later, she was here in Rwanda with six kids in party clothes and no money or friends. Her kids keep asking when she'll get her car and take them home. She says she'll only return on two conditions - that the president step down and his youth brigade disarm. Now elections are postponed and a new date has not been set. It'll be a long wait. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Mahama Refugee Camp, Rwanda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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