LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Refugees fleeing escalating violence in Burundi say members of the ruling party’s youth wing are painting red marks on the homes of people to be targeted, the U.N. refugee agency said on Friday.
There are also reports of people selling their properties before leaving the country, possibly indicating that they expect prolonged insecurity, UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards added.
More than 50,000 Burundians - mostly women and children - have fled to neighbouring countries in recent weeks amid violent protests triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s plan to run for a third term.
Opponents say the move violates the constitution and a peace deal that ended Burundi’s ethnically-charged civil war in 2005.
The violence has plunged the small central African country into its worst crisis since the 12-year war, which pitted rebels from the ethnic Hutu majority against the then Tutsi-led army and killed about 300,000 people.
Edwards said refugees arriving in Rwanda had spoken of harassment and intimidation by members of the Imbonerakure youth wing “who paint red marks on homes of people to be targeted”.
“Some decided to leave as a precautionary measure, having experienced previous cycles of violence,” he told a briefing in Geneva.
The ruling CNDD-FDD party denies charges that its youth wing is armed and trying to stir violence. It says its opponents are the ones trying to stoke tensions.
Edwards said fleeing refugees faced many dangers.
“Several women have reported threats of rape from armed men, and having to bribe their way through roadblocks. Some have walked for hours through the bush with their children,” he said.
The refugee agency said many refugees had come from northern Burundi, but this week it had begun seeing arrivals from urban areas including high school and university students.
Around half the refugees have arrived in Rwanda which has voiced concern about the unrest. Rwanda has the same ethnic mix as Burundi and suffered a 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 people.
Edwards said the UNHCR was working with Rwanda to move the refugees to a new camp, Mahama, with room for up to 60,000.
There has also been a sharp increase in Burundians seeking refuge in Tanzania, including an estimated 10,000 who have arrived on Kagunga island on Lake Tanganyika.
“We have started to relocate them with the help of an old ferry that can carry a maximum of 600 people,” Edwards said.
They would be taken to Nyarugusu refugee camp, where they would get a plot of land on which to build a shelter and grow vegetables, he said.
Almost 8,000 more have fled to Democratic Republic of Congo where they are being hosted by local families, according to UNHCR.
Edwards said Burundi had seen some of the most promising developments in recent refugee history in Africa, including one of the world’s largest voluntary return programmes in which almost half a million Burundians have headed home.
“Since the eruption of pre-election violence in mid-April, however, there have been alarming signs that this progress is being undone,” Edwards said.
African and Western nations had pressed Nkurunziza not to run in the June 26 election. Some opponents say the situation has deteriorated so far that the election should be postponed.
Reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Emma Batha in London, Editing by Ros Russell