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Life in Tanzania's refugee camps

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A refugee mother and child in Mtabila camp, in Kasulu, Tanzania. Fourty thousand Burundian refugees now live in Mtabila; the Tanzanian government wants them out by summer’s end.

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Outside the United Nations refugee agency’s Mtabila office, goats – a major source of food in the camp – find drinking water after a rain. Across the globe, 13.6 million refugees and asylum seekers are living under or seeking UN protection; 60 percent have lived in places like this for 10 years or more.

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Mtabila residents wait to receive their rations at a food distribution center. Refugees spend a great deal of their camp life waiting in lines – and often, decades waiting for permanent homes.

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Camps are notoriously dangerous places, especially for women and minorities. One such group is albinos, who are targeted in much of Central Africa, and frequently dismembered so their limbs can be used in ritual medicine. In Mtabila, people with albinism and their families live fenced-in lives of protective custody.

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A guard talks on his cell phone before a visit to Mtabila by the acting United States ambassador to Tanzania. US, UN, and Tanzanian officials insist Burundi is now safe enough for refugees to leave the camp and return there.

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Refugee Jean-Paul Rukundo (fourth from left, with his wife and seven of his eight children) disagrees. The couple’s mixed, Hutu-Tutsi marriage made them victims of attempted murder back home. Mr. Rukundo says he will flee the camp and live on the run in Tanzania rather than take his family back to what he believes is certain death.

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Three hours up the road, in Kanembwa resettlement camp, refugees face a somewhat more secure future. The 2,000 Congolese residents have all been approved for resettlement in the US and other nations. Here, a couple carries food home from a distribution in the settlement they call “American Village.”

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Kanembwa resident Eva Sango fills a water bucket to wash up after lunch.

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Ms. Sango’s son Emmanuel (left) and other young refugees visit their favorite hangout, the guava tree in a nearby field that doubles as a clubhouse and midmorning snack. School has been forbidden in the camp for over a year, and their parents despair to see Emma and his friends losing ground academically.

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Refugees aren’t allowed to work in Kanembwa, and gender roles are so rigid that women do almost all the household chores. So beyond cultivating food in the fields around the camp, men and boys have a lot of time on their hands. Here, 20 gather around this favorite board game. No, they say, the divisions -- Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Congo Martyrs – aren’t meant to be political; they could be anywhere.

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Despite the “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence” workshops that international nonprofits conduct in the camp, and despite men’s complaints that the refugee experience is emasculating in a way that upsets the traditional order of Congolese society, women and men continue to operate in pretty separate spheres. Here, Mama Gloire (foreground) finishes off a set of crocheted doilies while her husband Pierre (background left) chats with his friends.

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The US is the world’s top funder of refugee aid, and many refugees’ fondest hope for a permanent home. Of the two camps, the US-funded Kanembwa is the much better appointed; residents say it feels more secure also. Still, refugees and aid workers alike laugh ruefully at this sign, which sits on the hill overlooking the dirt roads and mud-brick homes of the “American Village.”

Tanzania is in the midst of a massive push to rid the country of hundreds of thousands of refugees who've been living in United Nations camps within its borders. On the eve of the camp closing, a glimpse of life in two camps in northwestern Tanzania: Mtabila, home to 40,000 Burundians, and Kanembwa, home to 2,000 mostly Congolese refugees.

Photos by Mary Wiltenburg