At least 3,000 people, many of then returnees, have lived for years in an informal settlement on the outskirts of the capital, Bujumbura, with only two pit latrines between them, no clean water and no medical cards to help them access medical care.
That they have survived for as long as 15 years in difficult conditions without help from the government or any aid agency attests to the fact that thousands of people can fall through the cracks in a country like Burundi, emerging from decades of civil war.
Hidden behind villas and commercial buildings in a Bujumbura suburb is Sabe, home to 500 families.
"Some of us returned from Rwanda in 1993 after the election of Melchior Ndadaye [Burundi's first democratically elected president], others from Tanzania and [Democratic Republic of] Congo," Olive Bararusesa, one of the site leaders, told IRIN.
She said others were internally displaced from various provinces of Burundi.
Marc Ngendakumana, an internally displaced person (IDP) from northern Kanyanza province and living at Sabe site, said: "Living in a residential area as a destitute is like [living with] a pin in the foot, it is a painful experience."
Most of the huts in Sabe are grass-thatched, mud-walled structures, with patches of iron sheets.
"When it rains, we spend sleepless nights with our children because of the leaks," Bararusesa said.
With the March-April rainy season, several houses have collapsed, leaving residents homeless. Most of the homes are tiny, about 4 sqm, and often get flooded because they are in a swampy area.
As the site has only two latrines, many residents relieve themselves in the bush during the day.
"At night, we use plastic bags to dispose of our waste and in the morning, we throw them into the nearby bush," Marc Ngendankumana, a Sabe resident said.
Photo: Judith Basutama/IRIN
|Sabe residents outside their huts: At least 500 families live in Sabe without official help despite having been displaced for years|
Lack of clean water aggravates the situation, with residents using muddy and stagnant water for domestic purposes and even for drinking. Some of the residents hang around the roads with jerry cans, hoping to get water from passing motorists. Others struggle to fetch water from a nearby well used to water tree nurseries.
As a result, residents are at risk of waterborne diseases.
“Round worms and cholera are among the diseases threatening us," Bararusesa said.
Immaculée Nahayo, Minister for National Solidarity, said on 4 April the ministry was willing to supply the Sabe residents with water but lacked water tanks.
Regarding access to healthcare, Ngendakumana said only children under five and pregnant women benefited from free medical care.
"As we have been abandoned for years, we do not have cards entitling us to get medical care," he said.
Bo Schack, Representative of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said the agency "does not have knowledge of this site as a group which is in need of international humanitarian aid.
"If there are returnees, the UNHCR considers that returnees who have spent such a long time as 15 years are no more considered as repatriates," Schack said, adding that one cannot be put in a returnees' category for a long time or for all one's life.
"The UNHCR only assists those who are freshly returning, notably for housing, land and early subsistence money." He said people who had been at a site for a long time were taken care of by the government.
"We are going to react on the basis of a discussion we plan to have with the government."
Although well-off individuals and civil society associations assist the residents of Sabe occasionally with food and non-food items, they say this support is often inadequate, forcing them to find other ways of surviving. Some engage in hawking, others perform menial tasks in nearby homes and farms while others have resorted to commercial sex.
"We are sometimes hired for farming or building work so we can buy some fish and maize flour," Aloys Manirakiza, 28, an IDP from Ruyigi Province, said.
Some women said they engaged in commercial sex to provide for their families.
"To feed my children, I sometimes go for 'akagemeri' [Kirundi for a small bowl]," a woman who requested anonymity, told IRIN. In her case, akagemeri means the money paid to her for sex, which then allows her to buy a bowl of maize flour, rice or beans.
Minister Nahayo said assistance had been delayed because “the existence of the site was not known to us until recently”.
However, she said the ministry recently distributed food after a team assessed residents’ needs.
The ministry's spokesperson, Donatienne Girukwishaka, said the families received beans, maize flour and soap.
|At night, we use plastic bags to dispose of our waste and in the morning, we throw them into the nearby bush|
“Another distribution will take place after destitute persons in other parts of the country have got relief," Girukwishaka. "Sabe residents are taken on the same footing as other destitute persons in the country."
The National Red Cross Society (NRCS) announced it would send an assessment team to the site before delivering aid.
"We have a small stock of non-food items like clothes for women, jerry cans, plastic sheeting, kitchen utensils, [which] we can avail for them," Vénérand Nzigamasabo, in charge of relief assistance, said.
He said the Red Cross would have reacted earlier if it had been informed of the precarious condition of the Sabe residents.
So far, no alternative settlement has been proposed for the Sabe residents, some of whom were born in exile or left their homes with their parents in 1972 and therefore do not know their exact places of origin.
"Those who want to go back home will be resettled, those who have nowhere to go will be settled in ‘peace villages’," Girukwishaka said.
But in the meantime, the ministry is looking for funding to provide latrines, water and decent homes for the Sabe residents.