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Disease hits Burundi refugee community seeking safety on the shores of Lake Tanganyika

There's no adequate clean water on Kagunga beach, and many are reporting sickness. Sick refugees receive basic medical attention on the boat to Kigoma. Photo: Oxfam/James Akena

Overcrowding on the thin strip of rocky beach at Kagunga, where over 40,000 people are estimated to have fled from neighbouring Burundi, has been so severe that women and children sit right at the water’s edge on the soaked sand as they wait for the boats to arrive.

Two boats are transporting up to 1800 people daily to a makeshift transit centre in Kigoma, set up at Lake Tanganyika stadium. One boat, the MV Liemba, is over 100 years old. It’s slow going and many refugees say they have been in this location for up to three weeks. Whatever food they have brought with them has been eaten, and the handouts they receive are not enough.

Worse still, for the first two weeks, there there has been little access to clean water, no space to use the toilet (there were two latrines for the whole population), and nowhere to throw rubbish, meaning the lake water was used for drinking, cleaning, washing and more.

These factors are a recipe for disaster when it comes to trying to prevent the spread of contagious and water borne disease. Already, acute watery diarrhoea (AWD) cases have reached over 1000 among Burundian refugees and as of 19 May 15 deaths have been confirmed as the result of cholera. The clinics – merely tarpaulins stretched over wooden poles – are packed with people seeking treatment, and medical staff are working around the clock.

Current statistics show that about 60 percent of registered Burundian refugees are women and children; about 10 percent of children are unaccompanied or separated from their parents. Photo: Oxfam/Bill Marwa

The majority of people here at Kagunga are women and small children. Children under five are most at risk of dying from cholera and AWD, because they haven’t built up the immunity to fight debilitating and fast acting effects of the sickness. Many children I speak with complain of upset stomachs.

This place needs to be decongested urgently, yet the process of transporting people is a long and arduous one. The boat trip south to Kigoma takes three hours. There, they are security screened and taken to the transit camp where they are assessed for sickness, given food and medical care if they need it, and a safe space to sleep for the night. Finally, they are bussed along a windy, rocky road 150km to Nyarugusu camp, an existing refugee camp. Since the Government of Tanzania and aid agencies began responding on 5 May, over 25,000 people have been moved here from Kagunga and other border crossing points.

Yet heart breakingly, some don’t make the journey. It is an utterly devastating sight to see cloth-covered stretchers being carried out of the boat from Kagunga after all other passengers have disembarked.

Families have been torn apart by this conflict, whether because husbands and fathers stayed behind to fight or hide, or whether family members have been killed or lost to sickness along the way.

Yet the sickness many are succumbing to is preventable. Oxfam is working with local partners TWESA in Kagunga to ensure there is enough clean drinking water and toilets for all, as well as teaching people the importance of hand washing in controlling the spread of disease. This plays an important part in stopping disease before it spreads out of control, as well as keeping people healthy.

Aid agencies and the Government of Tanzania are gearing up their response here, but more materials are urgently required to ensure there is enough clean water, medical care, food and shelter for the estimated 70,000 people who have arrived.

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