(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.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Back to the not-so-big town

I’m sitting at the Kasulu Motel in NW Tanzania. It’s a familiar location to me – good yet strange to be back.

I haven’t been to Tanzania since September 2010, since it was our home. I do have a fairly strong nostalgic side to me and being back in Kasulu certainly does take me back to the years that we lived and/or worked here. The hotel itself was the venue for a few dramas that were recounted in previous blogs: feared poisoning by disgruntled staff, learning of ship sinking on Lake Tanganyika the same night Priya was on a refugee repatriation ship to the Congo, someone breaking into my room in the dark of night (turned out it was a drunk South African), etc.

After returning from New York/DC/Switzerland, I had a few days to catch my breath before heading to Tanzania this week. Being back in the Kasulu office and the UNHCR compound has been a bit like being home. I have spent so much time here in the past. The office hasn’t changed much. The people are mostly the same. Seeing former staff has probably been the most enjoyable part.

The Task at Hand
The purpose of the trip is to kick-start the collaboration with regards to the repatriation of the Burundians in the final remaining refugee camp in Tanzania. It would not be absolutely necessary for the Country Director to attend such a series of meetings except for the fact that I am in a particularly good position to participate in bridging the gap between the country of origin and the country of return. I’m keenly aware of the context on both sides of the border and I know the majority of the people involved.More importantly I can point out where one shouldn't eat.
Now that we are overseeing the logistical support for the operations on the Burundi side of the border (rather than just the protection activities), we have a much bigger vested interest in making sure that there is solid coordination between the two sides. The planning figures involve 5,000 returnees per month if things go as projected. To give you an idea how many trucks are needed, we normally calculate about two trucks for every 50 people (one for belongings and the other for the people). Belongings vary as people bring whatever they can within their allotted weight limit. In addition to bags you find tools, window frames, cooking items, goats, chickens, etc. Items are tagged and transported in separate trucks. 
Utility takes priority over comfort as people are crammed into trucks with bench seats (though there is talk of using buses this time). The more vulnerable returnees (elderly, sick, etc.) are provided separate transportation. With police, ambulance and UN escort, convoys can approach 40 vehicles in length. It is an fascinating process to witness with deep underlying emotional drama as peoples’ entire lives are completely changing before your eyes.
 For this particular repatriation exercise, all this is dependent of course on the willingness of refugees to voluntarily return. Under the UN (and partners like us) mandate, we cannot participate in a forced return (i.e. forcing people to get in the trucks). If the Burundians refuse to go, there will be a standoff and the Tanzanian government is considering its options if such a situation presents itself. Sending in the troops is one option, in which case we (meaning our Tanzanian colleagues) would not be allowed to provide support. This would mean tens of thousands of people being pushed out of the camp on foot towards the border (close to 50 miles) from which point support could commence. It’s a scenario we are all looking to avoid if possible. Refugees are being informed that this is the eleventh hour and they need to hop in a truck if and when their appeal for refugee status is rejected.
As such we are preparing for the various possible scenarios. It involves intense coordination and communication to make sure that we are ready for whatever happens.  Though this threat has presented itself in the past, this time it appears to be for real. It has been communicated that the camp will be closed by December. So for now, with the roughly 38,000 mostly anxious people still residing a in the camp, we have some work to do.

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