(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Small Window for Optimism

It’s safe to say that there is a lot going on these days. I could say that all the time but the past couple of weeks since I returned from NY have been particularly eventful. Soon after I arrived I found out that I needed to go to Nairobi for a few days. I hadn’t even unpacked my bag from my arrival that Monday and I left again Wednesday. I returned on Friday only to leave again to Rwanda this past week. My travel, though time consuming and tiring, is only one piece of what is a varied and challenging load right now.
The trip to Nairobi was related to the return from Mtabila camp (see a couple blogs ago). It was a time to meet with UN and donor representatives at the regional level as well as key decision makers from Tanzania and Burundi. While the discussions were interesting, there was also much to be gained from conversations before and after and making important acquaintances. As awkward as it was to cram that into my schedule after being in NY for two weeks and knowing that I was going to Rwanda the following week, I think it was worthwhile overall.
Last week in Rwanda was my regular monthly visit. There is a lot going on with the program there and it’s tough for them from a leadership perspective since I am not based there. We discussed some options to deal with the fact that I can’t be there more often (providing better leadership structure) and I think we made some progress. There are several irons in the fire (proposals for growing the program) which will affect the amount of resources we would have to support such a structure in addition to a lot of the practical implications that come with growth. For now I think we have a common understanding, one that is far from perfect but one that can help us move forward for the time being and then re-evaluate in January.
Behind all of this over the past several weeks as been the situation in the Congo (DRC). It’s far too complex a situation to write a single blog about but the short of it is that there is a long history of unrest, particularly in two key provinces: North and South Kivu. North Kivu sits adjacent to Rwanda and South Kivu is more adjacent to Burundi. As you might guess, the unrest has a long history of linkages with the respective neighboring countries. Ethnicity, mining, corruption, power, arms trafficking, etc. all play into what is a complex web of rebel groups, governments and corresponding alliances – alliances which have a habit of changing making things even harder to follow.
new arrivals from the Congo preparing to head to the camp
The linkages that are more directly related to what I do involve displacement and the need for people to flee the nonsense and seek refuge in Burundi. Rape, recruitment of child soldiers and pillaging all make life untenable for the local population. This is, of course, in addition to the “normal” war stuff like shooting, bombing and so forth. The violence has shown to have a tendency to move around in an unpredictable way that torments citizens. The arrival of the cell phone in rural villages in recent years has provided some assistance as to what is going on and to help anticipate coming danger but they also serve as facilitators of false rumors. We’ve seen that a lot here in Burundi as well.
Refugees from the Congo that I’ve spoken to often have varied stories about their respective situations. People from the same village can have different opinions as to who the perpetrators were that caused them to flee. It’s not always clear since there are often no clearly distinguishable uniforms. Language may provide a clue for some groups but Swahili could be spoken by almost all of them. People also may provide different accounts as to what took place and when. In many cases days or weeks have passed before they arrive in the new country as asylum seekers. Many were subjected to further abuse along the way in addition to the myriad of practical challenges which cause them to arrive malnourished, dehydrated and often traumatized.
In 2012 we have received several thousand refugees from the Congo but with the recent activity in North Kivu, there has been fear of even higher numbers. The displacement concern is not only for the north but as government troops and resources move north to try to put the hammer down on the M23, the largest and most successful rebel group right now, there is a vacuum being created in South Kivu and other rebel groups seem to be taking advantage of the situation.
As the tension increased a couple of weeks ago, we even had to quickly host 18 international staff who were evacuated, colleagues of ours who work in South Kivu. I received word today that they are heading back so that their activities can continue. Indeed, it’s a tough balance between being responsibly protecting yourself and resuming the activities you do to serve the local population who are in a particular time of need. Nonetheless, things may be improving. The international community is involved and though sometimes that doesn’t help at all, if it gets people talking instead of shooting guns, it’s progress.
The other concern has been that as so many of our resources have been dedicated to the mass return of Burundians in the south (particularly logistical resources like trucks, drivers and so forth), a mass influx from the Congo would be tough to support. However as things are evolving, it appears that won’t be a problem. The Mtabila situation seems to be winding down and it might reach its end within the next week or two. I likely will make a quick trip down there this week to assess the situation and meet with staff and partners. Other than some violence initiated by some of the last remaining former refugees, we are close to putting a very protracted refugee situation to rest. It will certainly be nice to change our focus and invest more time and energy into the difficult job of reintegrating these people into their new lives in Burundi after living so many years in Tanzanian refugee camps.
I have only two weeks before I go to the States for the holidays, to once again be with my wife and daughter. I also saw that my Boise State Broncos won yesterday so hey, things are looking up.
nice photo from a photographer who visited last week

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Thelma 'n Louise

Priya and Kiran are in the US leaving me behind to do my work and travel. My darling wife recently sent me this photo of our little one with her cousin Isabelle. My first thought was, “How cute.” That lasted a brief second before my second thought which was more of a sigh. I’m starting to get a glimpse of her future. Here’s how I can see this playing out in twelve or thirteen years.

Cell phone rings (or whatever technology it is at the time). Isabelle calling Kiran. Kiran to Dad, “Can I go to the mall with Bella?”
“It’s may I go to the mall,” I say, stalling, trying to think of something to say besides yes.
“MAY I go to the mall?” Eyes roll.
“Did you finish your homework?” I ask, still stalling.
“I’ll do it when I get back,” she answers using a well-worn teenage line that will still be popular in thirteen years.

Eventually I will cave and off they will speed in Bella’s pink convertible Mustang, gravel spraying the side of the garage (maybe not since it will probably be electric). I then picture the two cute girls being picked up on at the mall by obnoxious boys, Kiran’s father unable to follow them through the mall with his baseball bat as is his custom. I’m going to be hopeless as a father.

Kiran in Bujumbura

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Curtain Falls

Over the past six years I have either directly or indirectly been working with a population of Burundian refugees living in northwestern Tanzania. I’ve blogged about it from time to time and each time the discussion has involved something about their projected return to Burundi. Since 2002 nearly a half million refugees who fled the country in 1993 have returned. This group of 35,000 or so is all that remains (with the exception of about 162,000 who fled conflict in 1972 but are slated to be naturalized Tanzanian citizens). They are the hardest of the hard. They’ve been pressured to return for years and they have refused. The Tanzanian government has lost patience, as has the international community. In August the Tanzanian government removed their refugee status and told them that the camp will be closed by the end of the year – whether they choose to go voluntarily or not. After no less than six cries of wolf, the wolf finally arrived.

We focused on three scenarios of how this could play out to guide us in our preparations. Though it was very helpful, what transpired was yet a different scenario. One day a few weeks ago, the Tanzanian military arrived at dawn and began to round up families for deportation. It apparently wasn’t pretty and I don’t know all the details but the message was clear: this is serious. You will be removed from your homes and your houses (mostly wood pole frame filled in by hardened mud) are being demolished as you vacate. After some rather harsh treatment of a few, the ensuing days demonstrated that if this absolutely needs to be done, this was probably best the way to mitigate a large-scale humanitarian mess. One fear was that the government’s frustration would cause them to push the whole lot towards the border all at once. As it was, there were some complications, separated families, separated belongings, etc. but the impact served its purpose. The repatriation effort began and soon hundreds began coming forward to get it over with.

Communication began immediately between our colleagues in Tanzania and us. We needed to monitor what was going on to make sure that preparations on the Burundi side of the border were adequate for what was coming in our direction. We were also concerned about how the returnees would react. Over the years they have proven to be unpredictable at times and we didn’t know if they would put forth resistance. There have been rumors for years about the amount of weapons in the camp. While it was unlikely that they would be overtly confrontational in large numbers, there was some worry that there might be individual or small group resistance or some sort of nighttime aggression.

So far, except for the resistance of the first couple of days, nothing of the sort has materialized. In fact the contrary has happened. Several days into the process, people began coming forward in large numbers with a desire to get on a bus and get this over with. At one point there was a backlog of around 6,000 people who had gathered at the departure center which only has a capacity of a few hundred. While that seems strange, particularly after so many of them claimed they’d rather die than go back to Burundi, there is a theory as to why. It’s known that there were "intimidators" in the camp that were putting pressure on refugees to stay (for reasons that I won’t speculate on here) – even threatening them and their families if they were to return. While there may be multiple motivations for this pressure, my thinking is that what tipped the scale in the direction towards getting the hell out of the camp is that the risk to them from the intimidators was increasingly compromised. Once hundreds were crossing the border they could flee without repercussion. 

All indication is that things are under control and, though we don't know how many remain (some have already fled elsewhere to avoid returning) it seems that we are well over halfway. I was recently in a regional meeting in Nairobi with UNHCR, IOM and donors and the general communication was that though there have been glitches, people are quite happy that has finally started and that there are no major complications.

I have yet to visit the process since it began in vigor. I was there just a couple of days before it began but then I was off to New York, then Nairobi and tomorrow to Rwanda. I will likely make my way down there early next week, schedule permitting. 

It's important that the process continues at this aggressive pace. There is another situation brewing that could complicate things. The advancement of the rebels in the Congo are creating displacement, some of which is likely to come our direction. Early last week I assisted in evacuating some of our staff from our organization's operations there who are now here in Bujumbura. If Congolese in South Kivu are forced from their homes and the government here is welcoming them, we'll need access to those resources (i.e. trucks, drivers, etc.) we are using to support the returnees.

Never a dull moment.