Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The prospects for resolution of the humanitarian and political crisis in Burundi continue to look very bleak. There is an opportunity, however, at this moment for the international community to help save lives in the Northeastern provinces - the most populous region in Burundi. But the Government of Burundi, the United Nations, and international NGOs must act in concert immediately to avert further suffering of the Burundian people.

The prospects for resolution of the humanitarian and
political crisis in Burundi continue to look very
bleak. There is an opportunity, however, at this
moment for the international community to help save
lives in the Northeastern provinces - the most
populous region in Burundi. But the Government of
Burundi, the United Nations, and international NGOs
must act in concert immediately to avert further
suffering of the Burundian people.

Refugees International was in Burundi this past month,
following up on three assessment missions in 2000. On
the current mission, just completed, RI noted three
encouraging developments. First, in December, the
Paris Conference of world donors pledged an
unprecedented $440 million for the development and
reconstruction of Burundi, pledges that were
implicitly linked to continued progress on peace as
outlined in the Arusha Peace Accord of August 2000.
Second, the UN and the government of Burundi signed a
protocol agreement to discuss the plight of the
internally displaced. Third, NGOs and UN humanitarian
agencies have witnessed an increased level of security
in the Northeast.

The Northeast has been afflicted by a two-year
catastrophic cycle of drought followed by heavy rains
as well as an epidemic of malaria. The Burundian
Ministry of Public Health reported 1.8 million cases
of malaria in the last four months of 2000 alone, with
more than three million cases treated during the whole
of 2000. This disease currently affects one out of
every two Burundians, with most of this epidemic
occurring in the Northeast, the same area that is now
suffering from a dramatic increase in malnutrition.

The NGOs operating feeding centers in the Northeast
report that they are facing triple the number of
people compared to 18 months ago, and they do not have
enough capacity to meet the increased need. The 2000
harvest was below normal and the current harvest will
be meager, as the rains have been unusually heavy
during the planting season, washing out seeds and
bringing both flashfloods and erosion. The
consequences of malaria and growing malnutrition take
a large toll on farmers, as they depend upon their
physical health to plant and harvest. And, because of
the civil war, a UN official told Refugees
International, "these people have not been eating well
for seven years."

The government of Burundi needs to highlight this
catastrophe. "The government has a big responsibility
to tell the international community what is
happening," one UN official told RI, "There are things
that foreigners cannot do in the government's place."
In spite of a failed peace process and continuous
fighting, the government should raise a call for help
for the plagued Northeast.

The humanitarian community cannot count on an end to
conflict in Burundi. While the Arusha Peace Accord
signed on August 28, 2000 raised hopes for peace in
Burundi, the war continues today. Current formal talks
in Arusha being mediated by Nelson Mandela are
deadlocked over the issue of who will lead the
transition. Yet, without a cease-fire, all talk of a
transitional government is moot. Furthermore, peace in
Burundi is integrally linked to peace in the
Democratic Republic of Congo. Until the region becomes
more stable with fewer armies and militias, there will
not be much pressure on Burundi to find a solution to
their own civil war. There is a glimmer of hope that
such stability may be achieved in light of recent
agreements on the timetable for withdrawal of foreign
forces from the DRC.

While donors have rightly attached the condition of
peace to their development and reconstruction
packages, emergency assistance is not, and should not
be, so constrained. The humanitarian relief effort in
Burundi is characterized by repeated shortfalls in
donor pledges and lack of access to the beneficiary
population because of insecurity. The UN has shown
that it can respond to this catastrophe when it
supplied Burundi with an emergency supply of free
malarial medication last year. Much more of this kind
of emergency aid will need to be coordinated to
alleviate the humanitarian impact of the current
seasonal disasters.

Many international NGO personnel interviewed by RI
spoke of their confidence in the current security in
the Northeast provinces, although they note that risks
and restrictions still exist. Those interviewed stated
that, unlike several months ago, they can now run
their programs in the Northeast in safety, setting an
example for humanitarian access that might later apply
to the whole country. In order to assure the continued
safety of beneficiaries, NGOs that run feeding centers
should make sure that the distribution of
supplementary food is also cooked and consumed by
malnourished populations on the spot.

The UN humanitarian agencies should continue to
fulfill their obligations to the people of Burundi
with a campaign geared towards educating the
beneficiary population, the Burundian government, and
the rebel groups on international humanitarian
principles. "The ideal is to be able to explain who
you are without armed escort," another UN official
told RI last week. "We are not politicians, we are not
soldiers, and we have a right to come there, as the
beneficiary population has rights and needs that we
are addressing." There are qualified, committed NGOs
in Burundi willing to accept risks in order to deliver
humanitarian aid, and they should be backed by a
strong, clear and consistent UN voice. One way the UN
can facilitate humanitarian access is through the
distribution, disbursement and communication of
international humanitarian principles in the local
language.

In short, the humanitarian community can and should
step forward now to respond to these latest natural
disasters in the Northeast. Responding now would mean
mitigating the effects of both an epidemic and
projected failed crops to be harvested in May.

Recommendations:

The Government of Burundi should launch an immediate
international appeal for the disaster in the
Northeast.

The UN agencies can maximize their efforts and assist
their implementing partners by projecting clear,
consistent communication on humanitarian aid. The UN
needs to distribute humanitarian principles in the
local language as is being done by the humanitarian
aid community in the DRC.

Source: Refugee International
http://www.refugeesinternational.org/bulletins/cg_022801_01.html