The United Nations refugee agency has helped a first group of 35 Congolese who survived a massacre that killed 160 of their fellow countrymen in Burundi to start a new life in the United States, the vanguard of some 500 others who will head to US cities such as Denver, Louisville and San Francisco in the next few months.
“It is a salutary resettlement that will allow refugees with special medical needs to have better access to care,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative in Burundi Kaba-Guichard Neyaga said as the first group left Bujumbura, the capital, on Sunday.
“Since neither local integration in Burundi nor a return to the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] could be foreseen in the near future, this ensures these refugees are safe and have better opportunities for their families,” he added.
Members of the Congolese diaspora have been lobbying the US to accept the survivors of the Gatumba massacre for resettlement, and the US worked with UNHCR and the inter-governmental International Organization for Migration (IOM) to prepare their departure. UNHCR screened and interviewed refugees and prepared and submitted individual cases to the US authorities.
The drama began on the night of 13 August, 2004, when Burundi’s ethnic Hutu rebel Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), the only group not to have joined the country's peace process at the time, stormed the camp at Gatumba that was sheltering 860 Banyamulenge (ethnic Tutsi) who had already fled violence in the DRC.
Hutu-Tutsi rivalry has claimed well in excess of a million lives in the region over the past four decades including at last 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus massacred by extremist Hutus in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Some 160 Banyamulenge were slaughtered, mostly women and children. After the tragedy the survivors were moved deeper into Burundi from Gatumba, which is west of Bujumbura and close to the border. None of the attackers have been apprehended.
“My children have vivid memories of the burning tents, of gunfire and of their dead mother, my wife,” Elias Kanyabitaro, 53, who lost his first wife and an 11-year-old daughter, said as he awaited Sunday’s flight with his 10 children and second wife.
He was still uncertain about the exact location of his new home, the Texas city of Abilene, but he was glad to be leaving the ramshackle house that he and his family shared with four other families in Bujumbura. He could have moved to more comfortable quarters in another camp after the Gatumba attack, but he refused because for him all refugee camps had become synonymous with terror and death.
All of Mr. Kanyabitaro’s children suffered psychological trauma and three have permanent physical scars; one was shot in the leg, another in the hip and a third near her eye. She was among about a dozen wounded refugees medevaced by UNHCR at the time for emergency treatment in Nairobi.
The future is unclear for the former cattle herder but he is confident that he will manage despite the fact that he knows nobody in America and has hardly any belongings. The refugees will receive vocational training and free accommodation for their first six months and a sponsor in Abilene will him and his family.