THE STORY OF RETURNEES
FROM REFUGEE CAMPS IN TANZANIA BACK TO BURUNDI
Since 2015, over half a million people have fled instability and conflict in Burundi. The situation is one of the most under-reported and under-resourced refugee crises in the world. Many families have had to flee without warning, on foot, in the dark of night to avoid detection. After several days of trekking along small paths, through forests and rivers and over hills and mountains, they reached refugee camps in neighboring countries, a majority in Tanzania. Many ended up in the Mtendeli camp, in northwestern Tanzania. This was also the case for Mukamaana Kolodine and her family.
Image: Mukamaana (center) and her artisan friends
Mukamaana is 30 years old and has five children. She is originally from Muruzo in northern Burundi. Due to recurring conflict, she spent almost 10 years in refugee camps in Tanzania. In total, she and her family have already had to flee three times, most recently in 2016.
Image: Mtendeli Refugee Camp in Tanzania
LIVE IN THE REFUGEE CAMP
Life in the Mtendeli refugee camp is difficult. Mukamaana lived with her family in a tent made of UNHCR tars, which offered little protection from rain and wind. Food rations from the World Food Program were insufficient due to the lack of funding for the crisis. They were also unable to grow anything themselves due to the poor soil and lack of space in the camp. Still, Mukamaana was happy that her children could go to school in the camp and that they had medical care from international organizations. After all they had been through in Burundi, she could not imagine ever returning to her home village.
WomenCraft established a first group of women artisans in the Mtendeli camp in 2017. As there is also a strong weaving tradition in Burundi, Mukamaana learned the local craft of weaving at a young age. Thus, she was one of the first weavers of the WomenCraft group in the camp. Weaving was the only means of income for her family in the camp and allowed them to supplement the lack of food rations with purchased food from the surrounding villages.
Image: WomenCraft weaving group in the Mtendeli Refugee Camp
THE FORCED "VOLUNTARY" RETURN
Within weeks of the start of weaving activities in the camp, the Tanzanian government changed its policy toward refugees from Burundi. Despite ongoing instability in Burundi, it was decided that the situation in Burundi was stable and safe and that Burundian refugees should leave the camps in Tanzania. Since refugees cannot be actively forced to return under international law, Mukamaana and her family and colleagues were made to return "voluntarily" by making life in the camp increasingly difficult.
The WomenCraft team no longer had access to the camp from one day to the next. At the same time, the artisans were no longer allowed to bring products out of the camp. It was said that the income generation created incentives for the refugees to stay in the camp. The common market with the surrounding villages was closed. These measures deprived Mukamaana's family of any livelihood in the camp. They were therefore forced to return to their village in Burundi in 2019.
Image: WomenCraft artisans with their finished products in Ngara
STARTING OVER IN BURUNDI
Mukamaana could not return to her old house due to instability in her community. However, with her saved weaving income from the camp, she was able to build a new house for herself and her family.
Because we were banned from entering the camp with WomenCraft and more and more families were returning to Burundi, we changed our focus away from the camps and toward supporting women returnees. In early 2019, together with Mukamaana and some of her colleagues, we founded a new group of women artisans in the border area with Burundi. Most of the returnees came back to their villages without perspective or possibility to rebuild. Through the weaving group, returnees now have a reliable income, which supports them financially and emotionally in their new start.
Today, Mukamaana is proud and happy to walk every day with her colleagues across the border to her weaving group in Tanzania. She feels comfortable in the exchange with her Tanzanian artisan friends, who are also part of the group. This year already more than 200 returnees are weaving in the group (see picture at the top).
By buying the products in our online store, you can directly support Mukamaana and her weaving group in rebuilding their lives in Burundi.
Image: Walking to the weaving group in Tanzania