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Burundi refugees find hope in ‘at home’ bar in Rwanda

Traditional Burundian drummers, living in exile in Rwanda, drum in Kigali on April 24, 2017, two years after Burundi’s president plunged the central African country into turmoil by running for a third term. AFP PHOTO  Stephanie AGLIETTI

Kigali, Rwanda | AFP |  Outside Rwanda’s national stadium is a bar that has become a second home for Burundian refugees fleeing their country’s two-year-old political crisis.

The clues are in the name, “Imuhira” meaning “at home” in Burundi’s Kirundi language, in the voices of those who gather on the terrace to exchange news, and in the Burundian reggae music that plays on the sound system.

They drink, eat, and talk of their country, which was pitched into a deep political crisis two years ago by Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term that his opponents say is unconstitutional.

The single-storey building wedged between other street bars was opened a month ago by a group of Burundian refugees who, feeling trapped and looking for a way to get by in the Rwandan capital, formed a cooperative to run the place.

“We are refugees, but we are not condemned to death. After all, life must go on,” said Lionel Nintereste, a 32-year-old refugee and one of the bar’s co-founders, sitting on a red plastic chair in a corner of the terrace.

Nintereste joined anti-government protests in April 2015, when Nkurunziza announced his intention to stay in power. He fled the violent repression that was used to crush the protests and crossed the border into Rwanda in June that year.

– A community in exile –

The bar employs 20 people and there are plans to open a food shop as well as to create a mutual health scheme for refugees so they can return home “with dignity and strength”, said Nintereste.

But for many Burundian refugees in Kigali, a beer on the terrace of the Imuhira is a scarcely affordable luxury. Odd jobs come up now and then but most complain that the labour market is saturated and opportunities few.

Making the situation worse, says the UN refugee agency UNHCR, is a lack of understanding among Rwandan employers that refugees are legally allowed to work if they can show official UN documents proving their status.

The refugees are trying to maintain a sense of community, despite being scattered throughout the capital, and the country. The bar plays an important role in that.

Meanwhile, many have organised themselves into neighbourhood groups sharing information about jobs, the situation back home or missing relatives via the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp.

Those of an athletic bent meet outside the stadium on a Saturday to jog the streets of Kigali as they used to do in Bujumbura.

“We are trying to take care of ourselves and not remain inactive, even if many are demoralised by the lack of a way out of the crisis,” said Jules, a 33-year-old lawyer, who did not want to give his full name out of fear of reprisals against family members still in Burundi.

– Bitter laughter –

Nkurunziza “does not want to negotiate, he chose another direction, that of war,” said Nintereste, who has abandoned hope of a peaceful end to a crisis that has cost the lives of hundreds already and driven 400,000 to leave the country, a fifth of them to Rwanda.

And despite the difficulties encountered in Kigali, few contemplate a return to Burundi anytime soon.

On the terrace of the Imuhira, bitter laughter greets the news that the Burundian authorities’ claim “peace has returned”.

“What drove us to flee is still there,” said Pascal Niyonzima, a musician receiving support from a Burundian organisation called ‘Maison Shalom’, or ‘House of Peace’.

The government “pretends that everything’s fine but the reality is quite different,” he said.

According to multiple reports from the UN and human rights groups the relative calm in Burundi is not a sign of peace but the result of fierce repression.

“The situation in Burundi is much worse than before,” said Nintereste. “We are imprisoned, tortured and disappeared in silence because there is no more media or civil society.”

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