Misanet.com / IRIN, 27 June - The road to Gihungwe displaced people's camp in the northwest Burundi province of Bubanza is a dangerous one. Rebel activity is rife in this area, the reason why so many people fled to Gihungwe in the first place.
On either side of the road are fields of burnt grass. "These were the rebels' hiding places from which they ambushed vehicles," a UN official explained. The army has set the grass alight to prevent the rebels from hiding and to open up the countryside.
This area is barely four kilometres from Burundi's border with Congo Kinshasa (DRC) from where rebels of the Forces nationales pour la liberation (FNL) and the Forces pour la Defense de la Democratie (FDD) are believed to have their bases. They have engaged government forces in a civil war that has gone on for eight years.
All the way, about every 10 to 20 metres are checkpoints manned by Burundi soldiers. Life seems to go on somehow in this part of the country, but "cautiously".
Gihungwe camp, established in 1998, is some 40 minutes by road from the capital Bujumbura, down a rough track bordered by long grass on both sides. The military are present everywhere. Visitors are enthusiastically greeted by the displaced people who live here. Shabbily dressed, most of them barefoot, men, women and children surge forward to meet the new arrivals.
A tour of the camp reveals small huts built from straw, many of them precariously close to cooking fires. In almost every open space, peeled cassava tubers are neatly arranged on the ground to dry in the heat of the scorching sun. "After the cassava dries up, it is ground and the flour is cooked in boiling water to make 'ugali' [maizemeal] which we eat with cassava leaves locally known as sombe," the leader of the camp, Mark Mvano, told IRIN.
- We harvest maize and beans sometimes, he said. "This time we did not get beans." They have farms some two kilometres from the camp and cultivate their fields during the day, returning to the camp at night for security.
Relief agencies have often stepped in to distribute 15-day food rations. The last distribution was carried out on 21 April to assist some 226 families, whose fields had been destroyed by floods. Earlier in February, the population at this site received seeds and accompanying seed protection rations, to ensure that the seeds for planting were not eaten. "When we have food we eat, but of course it is never much. When even that little amount is not there, we go hungry. What can one do?" Mvano asked.
The inhabitants of this camp, some 382 households with a total of 1,976 people mostly from the Hutu ethnic group, fled their homes because of persistent rebel attacks and looting. "They could come and take away everything," Mvano said. "It was as if we were just preparing and keeping the things for them."
- Not even our self protection groups could help us because the rebels were better armed, he added. "We fled our homes and sought refuge here where there are soldiers. But this is no life. We live in nests like birds."
Basic commodities are not familiar possessions for people in this camp. "We do not have soap, salt, cooking oil and we kind of don't think about them," he said. "Some people sell part of their produce to get some money to buy such items from the neighbouring Gatumba market." Sometimes during the food distributions, relief agencies give non-food items like soap too. "It is a life of abject poverty," Mvano added.
Gihungwe camp also has a serious water problem. "Water has been targeted in the war, you see. Now we get water some two kilometres away," he explained.
The soldiers use one of the two permanent block buildings in the middle of the camp as their residence. The other is the school, but many school-age children stay away from the classrooms because "their parents cannot afford the fees", Mvano said. "Some of them cannot buy books, pens because they lack money." The school has four teachers who come from Gihanga commune.
Agencies working in the area concede that children's access to education is limited, as many schools in Bubanza have closed during the past years of crisis. They say the remaining schools are often too crowded to be able to accept new pupils.
Mvano is concerned about indiscipline among children in the camp. "Because of the way we live in the camp, our children have learnt very bad manners and there is no way we as parents can stop it."
But one of the greatest enemies of the population in this camp is malaria. "There are a lot mosquitoes around. So many people suffer from malaria all the time and yet they have no money to seek treatment," Mvano said. Although he could not give statistics on the number of malaria-related deaths, he said the disease was a big problem. The nearest public health centre from the camp is eight kilometres away.
The British-based NGO Children's Aid Direct (CAD) has trained "agents de sante communitaire" [health workers] among the population on the site who carry out simple treatments. According to Mvano, pregnant women mostly have to deliver in the camp because they could not afford to get to the health clinic 8 km away. "When there are complications people in the camp often try to donate money to rush the victim to the health facility."
There is also an infestation of rats in the camp. "It is serious because they have destroyed most of our blankets and the already old and scanty beddings. We just don't know what to do about them," Mvano added.
About 300 metres from the grass huts, the construction of semi-permanent houses with iron sheet roofs is underway for some 286 households. "It is the reinstallation village," Mvano said. "These are people who have decided to reside in this area and not go back to their original homes. We are hopeful that the war will end one day. But it has totally disrupted our lives."
The concept of reinstallation is taking root among displaced people in Burundi. As the war continues with no end in sight, people are beginning to accept wherever they are now as "home". With the help of international NGOs, they are building permanent houses in which they will live with no intention of going back to their original homes.
One such project concerns a 1993 caseload of Tutsis who fled to the Ragaza I site - also in Bubanza province - which is a school building. They are waiting to occupy houses in nearby Ragaza II, a reinstallation site.
Since the farming lands of much of the population in the Ragaza site, some 726 people, are too far away to tend to, the commune of Gihanga has made limited space of land available. The half a hectare per family will be used to cultivate maize and sweet potatoes, but livestock cannot be kept.