For the first time since fleeing their country five years ago, Burundian refugees living in Rwanda are returning home. But while the government sees this as a significant step in uniting a nation torn apart by political violence, activists and aid workers are treating it with caution. Tens of thousands of Burundians remain fearful of returning to a country where human rights abuses are still rampant.
The East African nation has been reeling since it was thrown into turmoil when late President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a controversial third term in 2015. When thousands of Burundians took to the streets in protest, the government responded with a brutal crackdown that killed at least 1,200 people and forced some 400,000 to flee to neighboring countries. The vast majority of them wound up in Tanzania, but more than 70,000 sought refuge in Rwanda.
After Evariste Ndayishimiye, Nkurunziza’s preferred candidate, won the most recent presidential election in May, despite accusations of fraud, many Burundians refugees thought they would try to return. Since August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has repatriated more than 3,000 Burundians from Rwanda, according to Abdul Karim Ghoul, the UNHCR’s representative in Burundi. Thousands more could return by the end of the year, with up to 40,000 more to follow in 2021.