Burundians, Fleeing Political Violence, Find Welcome in Canada

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OTTAWA — In the days since six Burundian students slipped away from a robotics competition in Washington, D.C. — with at least two of them making their way across the border to Canada — many have questioned what propelled the teenagers to avoid returning home.

Yet, Justine Nkurunziza is not among those who are wondering.

Like the teenagers and hundreds of other Burundians, Ms. Nkurunziza, 57, followed a well-trod path north last year into Canada, the final stop in a desperate journey to escape the violence that is racking their tiny central African nation.

“They are saved,” said Ms. Nkurunziza, the president of an election monitoring organization in Burundi, who says she was marked for assassination by government security forces. “Those young people took the opportunity to flee from the killings, just like I did.”

Since 2015, around 300,000 people have fled Burundi amid the unrest that followed a decision by the country’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to seek a third term in violation of constitutional term limits. (Ms. Nkurunziza is not related to the president.) Despite protests, a failed coup attempt and an election boycott by opposition parties, Mr. Nkurunziza emerged victorious in a vote that Western observers roundly criticized as rigged.

Over the past two years, the United Nations has documented hundreds of summary executions, assassinations, torture and other crimes. The Burundian government has denied the findings, and responded by becoming the first country to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, The Hague-based tribunal responsible for trying crimes against humanity.

Thousands have fled to refugee camps in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, where they face reprisals from marauding Burundian militias that have carried out targeted killings, human rights groups and refugees say.

The disappearance of the Burundian teenagers, including two who the Metropolitan Police Department on Tuesday confirmed had been found safe in Canada, thrust a simmering African crisis into the international spotlight and underscored Canada’s reception to those seeking refuge from war and political violence.

As the administration of President Trump is seeking to stanch the flow of refugees into the United States, Canada has taken the opposite approach. In May, the Canadian government designated refugee claims from Burundi, along with those from Afghanistan, Egypt and Yemen, as eligible for expedited processing, allowing the authorities to accept the claims without a hearing. The expedited-processing policy, put in place in 2015, also applies to refugees from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.

Canada’s tightknit Burundian community of roughly 10,000 has welcomed the stream of new arrivals since the crisis erupted. Over the past two years, Canada’s Refugee Protection Division has approved claims from 690 Burundians, according to government figures. More than 2,000 Burundian refugees have arrived in the United States in the past two and a half years, according to the State Department.

Benjamin Manirakiza, first counselor in the Burundian Embassy in Washington, denied that the government was targeting opponents, and said the teenagers were probably seeking a better life in North America.

“Burundi went through troubles, and security now is not perfect,” he said. “Maybe they are seeking more opportunities.”

Officials at the Burundian Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to interview requests.

Ms. Nkurunziza, who led the Civil Society Coalition for Election Monitoring, was a prominent witness to the violent collapse of her nation’s fragile democracy, and she said it was her outspoken criticism of the president’s decision to seek a third term that had thrust her into the government’s cross hairs.

A failed coup attempt in May 2015, during the president’s trip to the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam to lobby the United Nations and the African Union, prompted him to close the borders and label civil society groups as enemies of the republic. Ms. Nkurunziza fled with her small suitcase to Rwanda, as did her family, she said.

“All the main civil society leaders, all the intellectuals, all those who dare to speak the truth, they are targeted,” she said. “They are killed.”

Fearful of possible genocide in Burundi, human rights groups were urging the United Nations to send in a civilian protection force, and Ms. Nkurunziza was scheduled to help make the case in New York last summer. While awaiting an American visa, however, she claimed her life was threatened.

Upon landing in New York, she traveled to the home of relatives in Portland, Me., and then stayed for three weeks in a shelter in Buffalo before crossing the border at Niagara, Ontario.

Asked why she had sought asylum in Canada and not the United States, she paused and took a deep breath. “I wasn’t feeling secure in the U.S. because everyone can have a gun,” she said, recalling the sound of gunshots that traumatized her in Burundi.

Most of the Burundians in Canada came in the 1990s, fleeing ethnic massacres between Hutus and Tutsis that spilled over from the genocide in Rwanda. These days, many of the refugees who make it to Canada are young people who were involved in the protests that swept Bujumbura, the Burundian capital, in 2015.

During an interview on Sunday at a government apartment in Ottawa, two of those protesters, both 21, described the climate of terror that had prompted them to flee their homeland. They insisted on not being identified, saying they feared for the safety of family members left behind.

In hushed voices, they recounted carrying anti-government banners amid throngs of young protesters and escaping after the coup attempt and the brutal government crackdown that drove scores of youths into hiding to avoid militias and neighborhood informants.

One of the men got an American visa to attend college in the United States, but said he had no intention of attending. After arriving in New York, he took a Greyhound bus to Plattsburgh, N.Y., and then a taxi to the border.

From there he crossed into Canada, where he told Canadian immigration officials that he was a refugee and that he had an aunt in Ottawa. In the fall, he plans to enroll at the University of Ottawa to study computer engineering.

Even as scores of journalists were fleeing Burundi in 2015, Tabitha Mukamusoni, 33, a stringer for Voice of America, stayed behind to cover the mounting violence, despite repeated threats from the militias, she said.

But after she reported on the shooting deaths of a Burundian journalist and his wife and two children by the police that October, a phone call from a police official spurred her to escape. “He said, ‘You’ve signed your death warrant,’” she said in an interview on Sunday. “I knew if I don’t leave, they’ll kill me.”

Ms. Mukamusoni fled with her son to Rwanda, followed the next day by her husband and daughter; she lived there for a year, covering the refugee crisis before going to Uganda to report on activists who had been attacked by Burundian militias. Invited to speak at a conference in Canada and fearing for her life, she flew to Montreal in October 2016 and claimed asylum. Today she lives in a house in Ottawa with other female refugees.

But separated from her husband and two young children, who remain in Rwanda, she finds that every day is a struggle.

“Without my family I live here hopeless,” she said, wiping away tears. “I’m safe, but it’s not easy.”