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Fearful and desperate, refugees flee Burundi unrest

The UN Refugee Agency says over 110,000 people are now fleeing Burundi as they fear for their lives.

A group of Burundian refugees waits for a soap and blanket distribution at Gashora on Bugesera in 10 April, 2015. Picture: AFP.

TANZANIA -The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says over 110,000 people are now fleeing Burundi as they fear for their lives.

The agency says there's a steady stream of men, women and children running away from the political crisis, which they fear could descend into civil war.

Protests resumed in Burundi earlier today against President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term.

Most people are fleeing to Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They are coming in their thousands, a steady stream of men, women and children bearing what few possessions they can carry as they flee their native Burundi and the pro-government militias they fear are bent on death and destruction.

At Kagunga, a tiny fishing village on the shores of Lake Tanganyika just two kilometres inside Tanzania, an estimated 50,000 refugees are sleeping rough, waiting for a 100-year-old ferry, the MV Liemba, to carry them south to safety.

Conditions in the makeshift camp are dire, with families forced to sleep on the dirt, plastic sheets and tarpaulins providing their only protection from the elements. To eat, they cook meagre rations on open fires.

Most have gone south to Tanzania but 27,000 have sought safety to the north in Rwanda, which is still recovering from a 1994 genocide in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed and 9,000 in DRC.

After a failed coup last week, few expect the flow of people to slow.

In Kagunga, seven people have died since the evacuees started arriving, the UNHCR said, and on Monday Tanzanian authorities confirmed an outbreak of cholera, suggesting the death toll could rise.

Three hundred people were suffering from acute diarrhoea, the UNHCR said.

The ferry, first used by the German Imperial Navy to patrol Lake Tanganyika in 1915, can carry 600 people but cannot dock at Kagunga, meaning passengers have to be carried out by fishing boat, a process that takes 10 hours.

The only other way out of the village is a four-hour trek to another village up through the jungle-clad cliffs abutting the lake, part of Africa's Great Rift Valley.

"The situation is very difficult. We've stepped up efforts to move people away by trying to rehabilitate a mountain track so that at least they can walk out, but it's a strenuous hike," UNHCR spokesperson Karin de Gruijl said.

"WE WILL FINISH THEM"

Over 2,000 people are arriving at Kagunga each day, more than the ferry can handle, and nearly all share one fear: youth militias known as Imbonerakure, loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose bid for a third term has triggered the crisis.

Just 10 years after the end of an ethnically charged civil war in which 300,000 people died, any muscle-flexing by the Imbonerakure, which in Kirundi means 'Those who see far', is enough to sow panic.

"The reason there are so many people here is because we didn't feel secure back at home because Imbonerakure were going around threatening people and saying they were going to finish them," one refugee, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.

"This went on for a while. People were terrified and they were wondering what they meant when they said 'We will finish them!' And then things got worse because we heard about what was happening in the capital."

In Rwanda's refugee centres, some Tutsis said they had fled an expected backlash by Nkurunziza's security forces after last week's attempted coup by generals opposed to his plans to prolong his days in power.

"I heard that the coup had failed so I was afraid that the Imbonerakure could retaliate," said Hakizimana Leonidas, a 46-year-old Tutsi who arrived in the Gashora refugee camp this weekend. "They tried a coup and it failed. I think it's going to be worse for us who don't want to see Nkurunziza run again."

Others told a similar tale.

"I have a fiancée in Burundi but because of the terror by Imbonerakure I had to run away," said 27-year-old Jean Berchimas Dukuzemungu, who said he was born of a Tutsi father and Hutu mother.

"When you are young and you're not in their party, you are in danger."

At the same time, small groups of protesters shouted slogans against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in office on Monday, resuming street demonstrations days after he survived an attempted coup.

The atmosphere was tense as soldiers deployed in the east African nation's capital, Bujumbura, where more than 20 people were killed in almost three weeks of unrest before last week's failed putsch, a Reuters witness said.

Residents reported heavy overnight gunfire in some parts of the city, and one body was found in the morning, though it was not immediately clear who was involved. The police, reviled by the protesters as pro-Nkurunziza, were largely absent, leaving internal security in the hands of the army.

Nkurunziza's bid for another five years in power which both the generals who announced the coup on 13 May and the protesters say is unconstitutional has plunged Burundi into its worst crisis since an ethnically charged civil war ended in 2005.

More than 100,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, fearing ethnic tensions could escalate and engulf Africa's Great Lakes region, as happened after the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Demonstrators said they were still determined to see Nkurunziza back down.

"This protest will not end until he himself says that he is not vying for a third term," Gentil Shokomba told Reuters. "We want peace in Burundi, and we are tired of war."

Although Nkurunziza's position appears to be stronger after the rump of the army rallied round him, the bid for power by sacked former intelligence chief Godefroid Niyombare, who is now behind bars, has done nothing to resolve the political dispute.

Divisions in the military, the central pillar of post-war unity and reconstruction, have heightened fears of descent into ethnic conflict between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority.

On Monday, Kenya called for the presidential elections scheduled for June 26 to be postponed to allow for a "conducive environment" but said they still had to be held before the end of August, when Nkurunziza's term officially closes.