KAGUNGA, Tanzania (AP) — As a teenager Joseph Nakaha fled with his parents to neighboring Tanzania when ethnic-based fighting erupted in Burundi after independence in 1962. In 1972, he was a refugee again and then in 1993 when civil war broke out, he and his wife and grandchildren again fled the country.
Now 67, Nakaha is a refugee once again.
With political tensions rising in Burundi ahead of the June 26 presidential elections, Nakaha is not taking any chances. Nakaha, his wife, eight of his children and eight grandchildren, fled from Makamba in southern Burundi to the fishing village of Kagunga in Tanzania.
This is the fourth time he has been a refugee and he is fed up.
“I am asking the Tanzanian government to give us land because Burundi is no longer our home. There is a problem every year,” he said.
Nakaha is among more than 90,000 who have fled Burundi because they are afraid of getting caught in the violence which many have witnessed before.
Burundi, a central African country of 10 million with rolling lush green landscapes, has had a history of political upheaval characterized by coups, assassinations and ethnic-based fighting. The country has experienced four coups.
Based on its violent past many fear that history could be repeating itself this year due to the simmering unrest in the capital over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office.
“The prospect of a third term for President Nkurunziza calls into question the preservation of peace in Burundi. The president is risking it all by trying to force his name on the ballot, against the Catholic Church, civil society, a fraction of his own party and most external partners,” said the International Crisis Group in a report in April.
Weeks of street protests have hit Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, since the ruling party announced on April 25 that Nkurunziza would run for president again. At least 20 people have died and 471 injured in the continuing protests, according the Burundi Red Cross.
The protests gave rise to an attempted coup, led by a general who had been fired by Nkurunziza as intelligence chief. The coup attempt was crushed within 48 hours and most of the alleged plotters arrested or killed except for the suspected coup leader, Maj. Godefroid Niyombare, whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Many fear the current turmoil will return Burundi to the violence that has plagued its history. Burundi descended into chaos soon after independence from Belgium in 1962. Ethnic violence pitting the minority Tutsi and majority Hutu tribes was triggered by the ouster of a Tutsi monarch Mwambutsa IV.
The country has seen waves of violence by Hutus against Tutsis and vice versa. In 1972 a Hutu uprising was crushed leading to the deaths of an estimated 100,000.
In 1993 there was an ethnic-based civil war following the assassination of the country’s first democratically elected President Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu. That conflict lasted until 2005 and caused the deaths of some 250,000 people. Nkurunziza, a Hutu, was elected by parliament to lead the country and he was re-elected in 2010.
Now with Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, violence and tensions have risen again. Burundi’s Constitution states that a president elected by a direct vote can only serve two terms. Nkurunziza maintains he is eligible for a third term because parliament elected him for his first term, not a direct vote.
An opposition leader who was among those calling for the protests was killed in a drive by shooting Saturday and two people were killed in a grenade attack on Friday.
Unlike previous political upheavals the protests in Bujumbura do not seem ethnic-based as both Tutsi and Hutu are opposing the president’s bid for a third term.
Protesters have vowed to continue with the demonstrations that have forced businesses to close in the capital for nearly five weeks.
Nakaha says it is better to be living in a makeshift tent of torn old sacks in at Kagunga refugee camp in Tanzania than to face the threat of violence at home in Burundi.
Even though the camp has a shortage of food and an outbreak of cholera, which has killed 29 people in less than two weeks, Nakaha said it is better than Burundi because the volatile political situation makes it too dangerous.
“It’s better to be a refugee in a foreign country than a patriot in your own country,” he said.
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