Over the past 25 years, some 18,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have made their home in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Some left their country more than 20 years ago to escape persecution during the administration of the late Congolese president, Mobutu Sese Seko; others fled more recent conflict between the DRC army and rebel groups in the northeast of the country.
Regardless of the circumstances that led them to Bujumbura, the refugees share a determination to remain in the city, despite the difficulties they are enduring.
The refugees in Bujumbura fall into three categories: the largest group are of mixed ethnicity and comprise those who refused to be placed in refugee camps; the second group are of Tutsi origin, known as Banyamulenge, who have settled at an informal site at Ngagara, north of Bujumbura; and the third group are students - 32 boys and 17 girls - who attend secondary school in the capital while their parents remain in refugee transit camps.
Mibulano Safari, a Congolese woman in her mid-30s, falls within the first category. She fled South Kivu Province, in eastern DRC, in 1980 to escape persecution from the Mobutu administration and has known no other life but that of a refugee. She fled with her parents but now resides with her seven children in Buyenzi, one of the poorest suburbs of Bujumbura.
From a distance, nothing distinguishes Safari's home from others nearby; most of them are covered with rusting iron sheets, weighed down by stones to prevent them from falling or blowing away in the wind. Upon entering the building, one is struck by the sparse household items dotting the room: a stool here, a stove there and, in a corner, a bed. The house initially had two rooms, but the dividing wall collapsed due to heavy rains. No one has replaced it; despite the 10,000 Burundian francs (US$10) Safari pays every month in rent.
To survive, Safari has turned her home into a makeshift hairdressing salon. As she prepared to braid a customer's hair, she said: "I will get 500 francs [US 50 cents], but sometimes I get more. It depends on the style. That is my means of livelihood, if you can call this a living."
To make ends meet, Safari needs at least five clients a day. "Supposing I am lucky enough to get them - with all the family chores, shall I be able to handle them?" she said.
Refugees who live outside camps are not entitled to direct aid from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, as they are assumed capable of providing for themselves.
The UNHR has confirmed this. "On government request, the assistance is provided to refugees in camps," Catherine-Lune Grayson, the agency's public relations officer in Bujumbura, said.
Burundi granted Safari refugee status in 1980 but she said: "The status is like an identity card, which allows me to move around in the host country, nothing more."
She would like to get food aid, school material for her children and healthcare for her family. "If they [aid agencies] cannot assist me, why don't they resettle me in another country?" she said.
Simon Nkubana, the head of Ngagara site for Banyamulenge refugees in the north of the city, has similar complaints. "We are refugees only in name," he said. "Since 2001, the assistance was cut. They [the government and UNHCR] accuse us of refusing to be moved to Gasorwe [in northeastern Burundi], but it is not our fault if people there refused us. Don't you remember their letter [from Gasorwe residents] saying they cannot accept Congolese refugees?"
Congolese refugees at Ngagara live in small tents, surrounded by the cow sheds of their Burundian neighbours, which makes the smell of cow dung sometimes unbearable, especially during the rainy season. Nkubana said each day at the site was a challenge.
"We offer our services to Burundians. Women sell soaps, peanuts or salt, but we mainly live on charity from church organisations or people of good will," he said.
Even though they do not receive direct aid from UNHCR, the refugees - especially the most vulnerable - benefit from medical aid.
Violaine Fourile, head of the Jesuit Refugees Services (JRS), through which the UNHCR channels its aid to urban refugees, said three health centres in Bujumbura offered medical services to refugees, all of whom were entitled to healthcare. Since the beginning of 2006, however, the refugees have been required to pay 50 percent of their medical costs, which for many is prohibitively expensive. The measure has prompted refugee allegations that they are being deprived of their right to healthcare.
"Where do they want us to get the money from? By the time you get it, you will be dead," Safari said.
Fourile said medical services remained free for the most vulnerable refugees, including those who are disabled, elderly or orphaned. She added that difficult cases were often transferred to the Bujumbura University Hospital, where refugees were also treated free of charge.
The JRS also receives money from UNHCR to assist a small number of the urban refugees identified as the most vulnerable. These include orphans, the older people who care for orphans, single mothers and the disabled. The beneficiaries are given resources to start income-generating activities; others receive food or money.
In 2005, Fourile said, only 42 refugees benefited from the income-generating-activities programme, which allowed them to invest in small businesses such as restaurants, sewing or fishing. She said 60 others were now receiving food aid - mainly milk for children or food for those requiring a special diet. Twenty-five other vulnerable refugees - most of whom survived a massacre in August 2004 at the Gatumba Transit Centre on the DRC-Burundi border and are now physically or mentally disabled - were receiving financial aid.
Aid to students
The JRS also organises training for students to catch up with schoolwork, especially those at the primary school level. Two groups of secondary-school students live in Bujumbura under the care of JRS, which gives them food, school materials and accommodation. Their parents live in refugee camps in the province of Mwaro (in central Burundi) or Muyinga in the northeast. These students go back to the refugee camps during holidays.
Masasi Bazira, 20, is one of the schoolboys who live in Bwiza, a suburb of Bujumbura. Attending school in Bujumbura has been the chance of his life. "We have skilled teachers and study in good conditions," he said.
Still, life is far from perfect. "With no telephone, radio or TV set, we are cut off from the world. Yet, when we ask for something, they tell us even Burundian children do not have that," he added.
Other students complained they lack adequate clothing, as their parents are too poor to provide.
Despite their poor living conditions, the refugees have been steadfast in their refusal to move to refugee camps, where most of their needs would be met by UNHCR and other aid agencies.
"My sister is at Gasorwe," Safari said. "She complains all the time. If they were well treated, we could also go."
Nkubana said he would rather wait in Bujumbura for the security situation to improve in the DRC and then return home.
Fourile said the refugees would prefer to be resettled in another country. Grayson, however, said refugees are resettled in another country only under exceptional circumstances.
"The norm is that refugees stay in the first host country, especially if the security is assured," she said.
It looks like for now, the refugees are staying put, as none of those questioned complained about security. In fact, Nkubana said security was the only thing the Burundi government guaranteed refugees at the Ngagara site.