Background Briefing

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

Gatumba Refugee Camp

The Site

The small commercial town of Gatumba is in Mutimbuzi commune, province of Bujumbura rural, about ten miles northwest of Bujumbura on the main road towards the Congolese town of Uvira. The border crossing is only a little more than a mile or so further west, an otherwise unremarkable point in a vast expanse of marshland and grassy plains. To the north lies the Rukoko forest and to the south the Rusizi River and Lake Tanganyika. Beyond the edge of Gatumba, there are few houses and a scattering of roughly-constructed enclosures for cattle where young cattle herders spend the night.

At the western edge of town is the zone office and beyond that a military camp that once housed a significant number of troops. In mid-August, many of the soldiers were deployed elsewhere in Bujumbura rural, where skirmishes continue between the FNL and government and FDD forces. According to the camp commander, about one hundred soldiers were at the camp on the night of the attack. Across a small dirt road from the military camp is the camp for national policemen where several dozen policemen were on duty there on August 13. Both camps are permanent, regular facilities of the Burundian armed forces.

The refugee camp is situated less than a mile from the military and police camps, just beyond the edge of town on the main road towards the border.  Located next to the road, the camp included one cluster of large tents, fourteen of them green, one white, on one side of a field. Some one hundred yards away and facing them, was another group of twenty-four large tents, all white. Each tent was a dormitory housing several families. Between the tents, on the fourth side of the square and facing the road, was a row of latrines and showers. Beyond them was a football field and a marsh stretching to Congo, dry enough to cross easily at this time of year.

Camp Population

On the side of the field with white tents were housed about 500 Burundians, repatriated to Burundi in previous months after a period of exile in the Congo.  On the other side in recently built green tents were housed most of the Congolese refugees who had arrived beginning in early June. But because of shortage of space on the Congolese side of the camp, a few Congolese families were in tents on the Burundian side.

On the night of August 13, some 825 Congolese refugees were present in the camp, virtually all of them Banyamulenge except for a couple of dozen people from the Bembe, Vira, or Fulero ethnic groups. Those from other groups had fled the Congo because they had been politically associated with RCD-Goma or personally associated with the Banyamulenge.

A number of the Banyamulenge men had held posts in the provincial administration or in the RCD-Goma before fleeing Congo and they continued to be active in directing community life at the camp. Among them were at least two identified with intelligence service in Uvira. These former administrators and political leaders organized meetings at the camp frequently enough to attract the attention of Burundians living in the surrounding community.18 Many Banyamulenge en route to the Congo stopped at the camp and camp residents, many of them young men claiming to be students, also crossed the border with some regularity. 

Some Congolese authorities in South Kivu, some of them Mai Mai, believed that the Banyamulenge in Rwanda and Burundi, including at Gatumba, were preparing to attack the Congo to try to restore RCD-Goma control. They talked of reports that some of the soldiers who had fled with Mutebutsi had not accompanied him to Rwanda but were in Burundi, that Mutebutsi was recruiting Banyamulenge in the Burundian refugee camps to join his force, and that there were arms being stored in Burundian refugee camps.19 On at least one occasion a group of young men identified as soldiers who had fled with Mutebutsi to Rwanda came through the Gatumba camp.20 Because of these suspicions, Congolese authorities twice refused to allow young Banyamulenge from Gatumba to enter the Congo.21

According to the commander of the military camp of the Burundian army in Gatumba, such fears of preparations for a Banyamulenge attack on Congo were not justified. Burundian troops had searched the refugees when they arrived and had found no arms.22 In addition, repatriated Burundians living in close proximity to the Banyamulenge at the camp reported no military activity there.

RCD-Goma representatives with important posts in the Congolese government came to Gatumba or spoke with a delegation from Gatumba at least four times between June and mid-August. The last such visit was by Azarias Ruberwa, one of four vice-presidents of the Congo and president of RCD-Goma who met with people from Gatumba in Bujumbura a day or two before the attack. Some of these high-ranking officials encouraged camp residents to return to the Congo and promised generous assistance in getting re-established at home, but others insisted that the time was not yet right and that the refugees must remain in the Gatumba camp. Leaders who discouraged refugees from returning home may have hoped to use this and other refugee camps as bases in which to rebuild the strength of RCD-Goma—whether political or military.23


Attempts to Move the Congolese Refugees

The refugees were under the care of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which managed the camp at Gatumba and three others for refugees from Congo. It is UNHCR policy, confirmed by various Conclusions24 of its Executive Committee, to place refugee camps a “reasonable distance” from the border of the country from which they have fled.25 After the arrival of the refugees at Gatumba in June 2004, UNHCR made repeated efforts to arrange for them to move to a site in Muyinga province, a considerable distance from the Congo frontier, and a place where several hundred Banyamulenge refugees from previous crises were already installed. The Burundian government, responsible for the choice of camp sites and for the protection of the refugees on their territory26, agreed to this but did nothing to oblige the refugees to move and the refugees themselves refused to go. They preferred to remain near the border where they could more easily return home for visits and they objected to the climate and the supposed insecurity and prevalence of disease at the Muyinga site. In addition, some wealthier and more powerful members of the Banyamulenge community who did not live in the camp but in houses in Gatumba and Bujumbura were registered as camp residents and continued to receive food and other assistance. This practice, along with attempts to inflate the number of persons needing aid, is not uncommon in refugee camps. It is not clear if those involved were exploiting the system for purely personal gain or if they were directing the resources to some other purpose. But in any case, these refugee leaders, like some of the official visitors from the Congo, exerted considerable pressure on the refugees not to move. In July, UNHCR told camp residents that food being distributed at that time was the last to be given to them at Gatumba and that future aid would be delivered only at the site in Muyinga. Camp residents found other sources of supply, either from in Burundior from the Congo, and most continued to say they would not move from Gatumba.27

UNHCR requested the government to provide protection for the camp and paid the costs of this protection. Ten policemen were supposed to be assigned to this duty, but on the night of August 13, there were only six present, three at one side of the camp and three at the other. They had no means of communication with the police camp or with their commanding officer. Gatumba also lacked a camp administrator, leaving the camp under the supervision of local administrative officials. In other camps UNHCR had provided handheld radio sets to the guards and had paid for the services of a camp administrator but these measures were not taken at Gatumba because the camp was meant only for transit and was in the process of being closed down.28 Most members of the camp committee, refugees themselves, and local administrative and military officials, however, had cellular telephones and had the telephone numbers necessary to contact UNHCR staff.29


[18] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August 17 and 18, 2004.

[19] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August 17, 2004; by telephone September 1, 2004.

[20] Human Rights Watch interviews, August 19, 2004. Some of Mutebutsi combatants were arrested in Cibitoke, Burundi, in late June. Agence Burundaise de Presse, “Une  quinzaine de combattants Banyamulenge emprisonnés à Cibitoke”, June 24, 2004.

[21] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August 17 and 26; Gatumba, August 20, 2004.

[22] Human Rights Watch interview, Gatumba, August 20, 2004.

[23] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August 19, 21, and 22, 2004.

[24] The Conclusions of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Program ("ExCom") are intended to guide States in their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and in their interpretation of existing international refugee law. Although not legally binding, the Conclusions are adopted by consensus, are broadly representative of the views of the international community, and carry persuasive authority.

[25] UNHCR’s Executive Committee has repeatedly condemned military attacks on refugee camps, called upon host States to do all within their capacity to ensure that the civilian and humanitarian character of camps is maintained, and set out various principles in this respect, including the principle that camps are located at a reasonable distance from the border. These Conclusions also call upon UNHCR to make every effort to promote conditions that ensure the safety of refugees, including arranging with States to ensure that refugee camps are located at a reasonable distance from the frontier of the country of origin. See in particular ExCom Conclusion 48 (XXXVIII) of 1987, ExCom Conclusion 84 (XLVIII) of 1997, ExCom Conclusion 87(L) of 1999 and ExCom Conclusion 94 (LIII) of 2002.

[26] ExCom Conclusion 94 (LIII) of 2002 acknowledges in paragraph (a) that “host States have the primary responsibility to ensure the civilian and humanitarian character of asylum by, inter alia, making all efforts to locate refugee camps and settlements at a reasonable distance from the border, maintaining law and order, …” This Conclusion further recommends to host States, in paragraph c(iv), that “refugee camps and settlements should benefit from adequate security arrangements to deter infiltration by armed elements and  strengthen law and order.”

[27] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August 21 and 22, 2004.

[28] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August 24 and 26, 2004.

[29] Human Rights Watch interview Bujumbura, by telephone, August 30, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>September 2004