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May 23, 2015 2:21 PM

Joyful Burundi refugees leave disease-stricken camp

The Associated Press

LAKE TANGANYIKA, Tanzania (AP) Hundreds of women, many with children strapped on their backs alongside their few belongings, sing melodious tunes expressing their joy as their small boats approach the ferry M.V. Liemba.

"We are thanking God for leaving Burundi. Now we are in Tanzania we are safe," the women sing in Kirundi, Burundi's official language, after they boarded the ferry.

They are among a group of about 600 Burundi refugees evacuated by the U.N. refugee agency Saturday from a makeshift refugee camp at the fishing village of Kagunga, Tanzania.

The small town has hosted thousands of refugees crossing over from Burundi and now has been hit by a cholera outbreak. The refugees are being taken to Kigoma where they will be bused further inland to Nyarugusu, a camp with better facilities, said Celine Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the U.N refugee agency.

Tens of thousands of Burundians are escaping political turmoil triggered by President Pierre Nkurinziza's bid for a third term in office in the June 26 elections.

Burundi recently experienced a civil war from 1993 to 2003 which killed at least 250,000 people.

Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, has had four weeks of street protests in which 20 have died and 431 injured. The protests started after it was announced that Nkurunziza will run for another term, which many say is against the constitution.

The protests boiled over last week when a section of the army attempted a coup, which was crushed in 48 hours.

Fearing more political violence, more than 100,000 Burundians fled the country.

Thousands poured into the improvised Tanzanian refugee camp and 31 people died from a cholera outbreak. Twenty-nine of the dead are Burundi refugees in Kagunga, which has been the hardest hit by the disease, said the U.N. spokeswoman Schmitt. An initial assessment of the outbreak shows it was likely caused by a lack of clean water, over-crowding of the camps and lack of toilets, she said.

"They are eating on the floor, sleeping on the floor and there were no latrines," she said. "Our first priority was to move the refugees from Kagunga. At the same time it was important to improve access to clean water and latrines."

At least 1,500 to 2,000 refugees are being moved from Kagunga every day by four ferry trips along Lake Tanganyika to Kigoma, she said.

Among the singing women was Mvumilivu Odeta, 27, who says she is a refugee for a second time in her life. Orphaned at two when her parents were killed in the civil war, Odeta said cannot remember anything about the first time she escaped to Tanzania.

Odeta's first name, Mvumilivu, means, a person who can persevere, in Swahili, and now she has escaped Burundi's current turmoil with her 16-month-old son. "I am singing because I am thankful that we are alive," she said.


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