Violence Is Threatening Lives in the Hungriest Nation in the World
For months, the tiny landlocked country of Burundi in southeast Africa has been in a state of political unrest, with police using brutal—and sometimes fatal—force against antigovernment protesters.
The protests started in April after President Pierre Nkurunziza made a successful bid for a third term in office, which many saw as a violation of the constitution. Since then, hundreds who have demonstrated in opposition to the government have been beaten, shot, and left for dead in the street, as have innocent people caught in the crossfire. On Monday, grenades chucked from motorbikes killed one child and injured several others, prompting the government to ban motorcycles from central Bujumbura the following day.
But even in the midst of escalating violence, UNICEF is warning that a “major” crisis beyond that of existing political turmoil is unfolding in one of the hungriest and poorest nations in the world.
Malnutrition and outbreaks of serious illness, exacerbated by continued conflict, are threatening to further devastate the lives of Burundians, namely children. UNICEF reported seeing double the amount of children from violence-affected areas suffering from severe acute malnutrition. In some schools, the organization discovered children weren’t being fed.
“We’re seeing similar developments both in terms of increased reports of kids not having had anything to eat when they come to school, so not performing—and teachers not wanting them in school because they’re not able to concentrate—and also in terms of school materials and availability of resources for the government to actually run teacher training and so forth,” Bo Viktor Nylund, UNICEF’s representative in Burundi, told The Guardian.
Though food insecurity is nothing new in the country, where the majority of the estimated 10 million citizens live in poverty, the violent outbreaks have been draining critical resources and even causing donors to withdraw needed funds for medicine, according to The Guardian. About 58 percent of the health system is reliant on external donors, according to Nylund.
This year, the country is lacking about $400 million in donor funds as big donors are finding ways to redirect their aid to humanitarian groups rather than the government. Nylund says that amount will be needed to handle a growing number of malaria cases and cholera outbreaks coming from Tanzania.
In Tanzania, where more than 110,000 Burundians live in overcrowded refugee camps, malaria and diarrhea have been infecting many of the camps’ residents. Heavy rains and flooding caused by El Niño have left aid agencies short of funds and scared of further outbreaks, as there’s a greater risk of overflowing sewage systems and flooded shelters sickening refugees when they’re living in cramped quarters.
In May, 33 Burundian refugees died of a cholera outbreak in western Tanzania. Officials fear that if it crosses the border into Burundi, the country won’t have the resources to deal with a major outbreak.
“Even without any more violence, there will be a major crisis, so the time to invest is now—not when it’s too late,” Nylund told The Guardian. “There’s no way that the people of Burundi can survive with all of this support being pulled out.”
The violence in Burundi has killed hundreds of people and caused some 245,000 natives to flee over the past 10 months, but it’s far from being the first instance of violent conflict in the country.
Since Burundi gained independence in 1962, two genocides have devastated it, mainly as a result of ethnic conflict between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. About 300,000 people were killed over the course of a 12-year civil war between the Hutu rebels and the Tutsi army that ended a decade ago.
After Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, announced his bid for a third term, many protesters saw it as a violation of the constitution and the peace deal that had ended the war between the Hutu and Tutsi. Since April, the violence has only continued to worsen.
Though the African Union considered sending 5,000 peacekeeper troops into the country earlier in February, it decided against doing so after the government said it would be seen as an invasion.
While UNICEF is working to facilitate humanitarian aid for Burundian children and families devastated by the conflict, the organization warns of crises to come.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but we’re definitely seeing scary things on the health horizon,” Nylund said.