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Update 00/01 on ICRC activities in Burundi

15-08-2000 Operational Update

 General situation  

Under the new facilitator, Nelson Mandela, the Arusha peace process seems to have gained new and much-needed momentum. After two years of talks, for the first time ever armed rebel movements, which have so far been excluded from the negotiations, have been included in order to address ways of bringing an end to the ongoing war and violence. An agreement was due to be signed by all sides on 20 July, but the date has been put back to 28 August after concern that a hastily signed agreement would not be implementable. The main issues to be tackled include the terms of a possible ceasefire, who will lead the transition, and reform of the armed forces. The government wants a cessation of hostilities to be in place before any accord can be signed, while the opposition groups are seeking closure of all regroupment camps and the release of political prisoners.

Hopes of a political settlement have not translated into stability on the ground. Hit-and-run armed incidents between the opposition and armed forces continue almost on a daily basis in Rutana, Ruyigi, Makamba and Bururi provinces in the south, and Cibitoke and Muramvya provinces in the north. In June, the central province of Gitega was targeted by the rebels and there were isolated incidents on the outskirts of the city. There has also been a recent increase in the number of armed attacks around the capital Bujumbura. The civilian population has often been caught in the middle of the fighting or has been targeted according to its communal identity. Civilians are also victimised for allegedly taking sides or refusing to do so, or in many cases for opposing the theft of their livestock and other property.

Recently, the authorities are reported to have closed 30 of the regroupment camps around Bujumbura which held some 350,000 civilians, and have sent people back to their places of origin. (These do not include the older camps in other parts of the country housing more than 500,000 people displaced by the seven-year civil war). Many have returned home to discover their properties looted and require external humanitarian assistance in order to make a fresh start. According to UN sources, although the number of Burundians fleeing to Tanzania has fallen in recent months (from 23,000 refugees in January to just over 1,000 in April), the total number of Burundian refugees in Tanzania still stands at over 300,000.

The violence over the last few years has had a detrimental effect on the economy. Since the lifting of the economic embargo in January 1999, there has been little sign of recovery; the cost of living has increased by 50% since mid-1999, the exchange rate has fallen and state structures are finding it increasingly difficult to function properly. The authorities struggle to provide the civilian population with basic health care, and treatment has become a privilege for those who can pay. In addition, medical structures are crumbling, medicines and equipment are in short supply, and many qualified medical staff have either left the country or become concentrated in Bujumbura. Urban water supply networks are increasingly unable to cope with the combined effects of the conflict, a strong demographic growth (average population density 230 inhabitants/km 2 ), three years of economic embargo, a radical drop in international financial support, and the insufficient resources of the national water boa rd (REGIDESO).

 ICRC approach and response  

Extensive humanitarian needs are still manifest across the country, particularly for civilians in the regions affected by armed clashes between the Burundian army and opposition groups. The ICRC's progressive resumption of activities (the organization suspended its work in the country in June 1996, resuming activities from March 1999), has, however, been governed by the highly volatile security conditions. These have obliged the organization to focus its activities on people deprived of their freedom and injured or sick victims of the conflict mainly in secure urban areas.

As part of its protection activities, the ICRC seeks to ensure that those assisted have the means to cover their basic needs. As a priority the ICRC works on encouraging State responsibility in according such needs, which thereby necessitates dialogue with the relevant authorities. At a second level of intervention, where necessary, the ICRC provides specific support (assistance activities) to the authorities. The well-known " Health Pyramid " concept (shown below) can be used to illustrate the ICRC's approach in Burundi to the main target groups : people deprived of their freedom and the civilian population in regions where it has access. In the prisons, while striving to ameliorate all elements of the pyramid, the ICRC supports the authorities with specific assistance programmes to improve access to water and sanitation, hygiene, and medical care. The ICRC considers the equitable access to food in the prisons to be primarily a distribution issue, which requires the increased involvement of the authorities.

 People deprived of their freedom  


 Civilian Population  



Access to water and medical care in the prisons depends on formal government structures which are shared with the general population at large. Hence, any improvements to these two basic elements of the pyramid require intervention at both the prison and local community levels. Better medical care means supporting the existing medical st ructures of the town which cover the needs of detainees and the general population alike; similarly, improvements to the town's water supply, which equally benefit the general population at large and essential services such as hospitals and clinics, are essential in order to guarantee any improvements to the local prison's water supply. 

The unpredictable and often hazardous security conditions in Burundi have limited many humanitarian organizations from implementing activities freely throughout the country. Many of the main roads throughout the country are unsafe, and both the ICRC and UNWFP operate planes out of Bujumbura to travel to the provinces of Kirundo, Muyinga, Ngozi, Gitega, Cankuzo, Rutana and Ruyigi. The ICRC has set up two offices each equipped with two vehicles at Ngozi and Gitega. Delegates travel to these locations by plane from Bujumbura from where they work in the town centres using ICRC vehicles. Delegates working at the Ngozi office can travel to Kirundo and Muyinga by road or plane depending on their working requirements and whether they have prior security approval.

Access to all Burundian victims of the conflict is the main obstacle that prevents the ICRC from carrying out its activities in the country. In light of the many constraints, insecurity, problems of access and controversy surrounding the regroupment camps in Burundi, the ICRC does not give direct assistance to the displaced living in these structures.

With respect to the ongoing Arusha peace process, the ICRC is closely following the negotiations and, through its contacts with the different mediation teams, has made comments on reference to articles of international humanitarian law and mentions of the Red Cross in the draft accord.

 ICRC activities  

 People deprived of their freedom  

Since April 1999, the ICRC has visited eight of the eleven civilian prisons in Burundi (this represents 80% of the total prison population of 9,080 detainees) to assess the conditions of detention and to carry out its work in the prisons according to the usual criteria. The ICRC is working on fostering State responsibility in providing detainees with humanitarian living conditions that are commensurate with national standards.   In particular it is trying to ensure that different components of the prison system and other relevant authorities, such as provincial and central health services, the local water board and the penitentiary administration all work together to resolve problems regarding conditions of detention in prisons. The ICRC supports the detaining authorities in providing for the needs of the detainees, and in special circumstances, directly assists in improving hygienic and medical standards.

 Assessments at Mpimba, Ngozi (male), Ngozi (female), Gitega, Muyinga, Muramvya, Ruyigi and Rutana prisons identified problems of overpopulation, inadequate and badly maintained prison infrastructure, limited access to health care and poor hygiene. In particular, water and sanitation facilities and kitchens required urgent rehabilitation work. Since the resumption of its activities, insecurity has also forced the ICRC to concentrate its activities for people deprived of their freedom and improvements to conditions of detention at Mpimba (2,900 detainees), Gitega (1,600) and Ngozi (2,400 - male, 70 - women) prisons.

Since April 1999, standard hygiene kits have been distributed to detainees at the eight assessed prisons to improve hygiene and sanitation conditions.

Up to the end of April 2000, disinfecting and delousing operations have been carried out in Mpimba, Ngozi (male), Ngozi (female) and Gitega prisons. Each detainee has been supplied with a new mattress, blanket and soap, and other items such as jerry cans have also been handed over. Authorities from Ruyigi and Rutana prisons (251 and 333 detainees respectively) have monitored these operations and have been supplied with the necessary material to carry out the disinfecting and delousing themselves without direct ICRC participation. Medical dispensaries have been set up by the authorities in the three main prisons (Mpimba, Gitega and Ngozi) and the ICRC has supplied medical material and beds.

In coordination with the authorities, extensive rehabilitation work to prison sanitary and kitchen facilities was started at Ngozi (male), Ngozi (female), Gitega and Mpimba prisons at the end of 1999, and is now well advanced. Water supply connections to local networks and prison water storage capacities have been greatly improved at Mpimba, Gitega and Ngozi prisons, and they now largely meet demands. Renovation and work to extend toilets, showers and washing facilities are almost complete. Kitchens have been completely rebuilt and supplied with new cooking pots for the number of inmates. Sewage and septic tanks have also been repaired at Ngozi and Mpimba, and two new septic tanks are also being built at Gitega prison. At Muyinga prison the planning of rehabilitation work is currently in its final stages. The ICRC remains ready to extend its rehabilitation work to the other places of detention when security conditions allow.

The ICRC has also carried out a nutritional assessment of more than 7,000 detainees (Body Mass Index calculations) and has shared its findings with the authorities, who have progressively taken steps to improve the control of the distribution of food rations inside the prisons, and which have resulted in several improvements. Better access to clean water and improved hygiene conditions have brought the average mortality rate for the three main prisons (Mpimba, Ngozi and Gitega) down from 2.3/10,000/day in 1998 (Ngozi : 4.4/10,000/day) to 0.5/10,000/day in 1999 and to 0.4/10,000/day in 2000.

 Civilian population - water rehabilitation projects  

In cooperation with REGIDESO, the ICRC has identified and initiated a number of water  rehabilitation projects in order to extend and repair neglected urban water systems which have been unable to cope with sizeable demographic growth. This work has been carried out in parallel with the water and sanitation projects in the different prisons throughout Burundi.

The first phase of a project to assist REGIDESO in rehabilitating existing water points and protecting five new springs in Ngozi (27,000 inhabitants), has been successfully completed. In the second stage, plans for a new pumping station, which will be a more efficient replacement for the two old ones, have been finalised. Tenders have been submitted and work is ready to begin.

In Bujumbura, a project involving the construction of two slow sand filters is being planned to help REGIDESO increase by 50% the amount of drinking water supplied by the capital's water treatment plant (which supplies 80% of all its water). Once finished, the additional water supply will greatly benefit the inhabitants of the poorest northern and southern suburbs which have witnessed a major demographic expansion as a result of migrations mainly due to insecurity in rural parts of the country.

In the north-eastern town of Muyinga (4,000 inhabitants), rehabilitation work to a 45m3 water reservoir is underway. This reservoir will be used exclusively for the storage and supply of water to the lo cal hospital and prison.

 Victims of the conflict - health activities  

The ICRC supplies medicines and essential medical items to seven health centres and six hospitals (two in Bujumbura and one each in Gitega, Ngozi, Muyinga and Kirundo). Such medical assistance covers the needs of the local civilian population, detainees and war-wounded patients.


The ICRC is keen to promote to all parties to the conflict its main concerns regarding: the application of international humanitarian law; the distinction between combatants and non-combatants; the respect for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement and other humanitarian organizations; and the respect for medical structures and health personnel to allow for humanitarian work to be carried out. These dissemination activities have been extended to other sections of Burundian society, including members of the armed forces, civilian and military authorities, local human rights organizations, youth associations, secondary schools, prison authorities, security services and the press to reach the broadest possible spectrum of different opinions.

 Cooperation with the Movement  

The three different components of the Movement present in Burundi (Burundi Red Cross, International Federation (IFRC) and the ICRC), regularly meet to effectively coordinate their respective activities. The ICRC helps with the training of local Red Cross volunteers to carry out dissemination programmes. In collaboration with the IFRC, the ICRC also supports the review of the Statutes of the Burundi Red Cross. Among other activities, the IFRC helps to support National Society emergency preparedness training programmes. O ther Participating National Societies are also active in supporting the programmes of the Burundi Red Cross.