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Story Publication logo May 2, 2016

Why Assassins Are Hunting These Burundian Refugees in Kenya


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A rare, detailed look at one of the world’s most important battles against terrorism. PBS NewsHour...

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Still from the 4/26 broadcast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It has been one year since Burundi's president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced he was running for a third term, a move widely considered unconstitutional. His announcement triggered a failed coup, a questioned election, mass protests, and a violent crackdown on the opposition.

Since then, at least 400 people have been killed and 3,500 arrested. More than 220,000 people fled the country. Divisions between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups have characterized past violence in Burundi, but, on Sunday, Marguerite Barankitse was honored for her work helping Burundian orphans and refugees, regardless of ethnicity. She received a million dollars from an Armenian group. The money will be donated to the organization of her choice.

Still, ethnic identity can be a matter of life or death for Burundians, even those outside the country.

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin, partnering with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, found Burundian refugees 900 miles from home, in Nairobi, Kenya, where they thought they'd be safe. But their enemies have tracked them down.

NICK SCHIFRIN: It's just past midnight. We're in Nairobi,, Kenya, and this isn't only a cornfield. This is a kind of protection because, right behind me, there's a house full of men, and all night, every night, two of them are in the field standing guard, using old weapons like a crowbar and a rusty knife.

They are too scared to sleep, and too scared to show their faces. They are Burundian refugees who say they're being hunted.

The men who are guarding the house, can they really defend you from the people who are hunting you?

MAN (through interpreter): The weapons you see here can only be used against the dogs you hear barking. If there were an enemy coming here with a grenade or a machine gun, we wouldn't be able to resist.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Twenty-year-old Arnold is a Burundian refugee. He lives in this tin shack with seven other refugees. It's a 150-square-foot church library.

MAN (through interpreter): We have no mattresses, no food. As refugees, we can't find jobs, and we are scared of being arrested and sent back from where we were.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Where they were was Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. A systematic campaign targeted the government's political opponents, leaving some of their bodies in the street.

The U.N. warns that President Nkurunziza is helping lead the country to a second civil war by transforming politics into ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis. That's the same ethnic divide in Rwanda that sparked the 1994 genocide.

In the last year, 225,000 Burundians have fled the violence to cities they hoped were safe. But, even here, they hide their faces.

Today, here in Nairobi, which of you is afraid?

All of these men escaped from Burundi. Kenyan activist Tom Oketch brought them together to discuss their rights and try to calm their fears.

TOM OKETCH, Community Organizer: Some are saying they don't even care even if they are killed, because there is no hope in life. Some of them have seen their colleagues, their brother, their friends being slaughtered like cows.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And on New Year's Day, that violence arrived in Kenya. Burundian refugee Juma says this is where he found the body of Jean de Dieu Kabura, a member of Burundi's opposition.

MAN (through interpreter): He was naked, and his body had cuts all over. Then he spoke and he said, "Juma, they have killed me."

NICK SCHIFRIN: Those killers accidentally left behind their hit list, I.D.s of Burundian refugees they have already killed.

MAN (through interpreter): These are some I.D.s of the men. This one is stained with his blood.

NICK SCHIFRIN: You were supposed to look for members of the opposition; is that right?

This 23-year-old Hutu says the government sent him to follow the Tutsi opposition members, and kill them.

MAN (through interpreter): First, we were supposed to establish relationships with these people, and after becoming friends with them, we were going to use poison.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Pierre was a medical student, conscripted into the government's youth militia, known as the Imbonerakure. The name translates to Those Who See Far.

So, when you got to Nairobi and you realized what your job was, why did you refuse to do it?

MAN (through interpreter): When they showed us the list, I saw a person I knew. He was actually a friend. I was in a political party different from his. But, for me, that doesn't mean I should hate this person or kill him.

ALBERT, Refugee: We are afraid to be killed by those person who were sent by the government.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Albert is a Burundian journalist.

ALBERT: They said that they will stay in the roads until the president reverses his decision to run for a third term.

NICK SCHIFRIN: He covered clashes between the government and opposition protesters.

ALBERT: I was on the ground to report, to get the story about the demonstration. After one day, all independent media were burned by policemen, by the government. Imagine policemen who killed who are honored by the president.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In Kenya, these men went to the local police, and say they were ignored.

Police spokesman Charles Owino denies that.

CHARLES OWINO, Police Spokesman: If there are accusations that a person has killed another and we have evidence that justify it, then the person must face the law. It doesn't matter where he comes from. It doesn't matter whose interests he's serving.

NICK SCHIFRIN: That reassurance holds even less comfort than sleeping in shifts, and cooking cornmeal in a donated bedroom.

Do you miss home?

MAN (through interpreter): Before the crisis in Burundi, we had enough resources to have a better life. We are here because we have nowhere else to go.

NICK SCHIFRIN: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Nick Schifrin in Nairobi.



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