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Millions in Burundi Live in Desperate Conditions, reports UN - 2003-11-23

Despite an ongoing peace process, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Burundi tells VOA the situation remains desperate for most of the country's seven million inhabitants.

The United Nations says conditions in Burundi are among the worst in the world. It says almost every province in the country has had to endure sporadic fighting, looting or armed banditry this year.

Humanitarian Coordinator Sunil Saigal says people are cautiously optimistic that the peace process will make things better for people in the country. A cease-fire agreement recently was signed between the government and three of the four rebel groups.

But Mr. Saigal told VOA that until the improvements on the political level filter through to fighters on the ground, the hostilities will continue.

"We have seen increased tendencies of banditry, lawlessness in certain parts of the country which affects the civilian population very strongly," he said. "One of the very tragic trends that we have seen over the last few months has been an increasing number of rapes."

Mr. Saigal says women are at risk of rape by government soldiers and rebels alike. These acts of violence, he says, not only increase the level of trauma among women, they also cause HIV/AIDS to spread.

U.N. statistics show about 60 percent of Burundi's population lives below the poverty line and 70 percent is under-nourished. It says an estimated 300,000 people have been made homeless during Burundi's decade-long civil war. Another 800,000 Burundian refugees still live in Tanzanian refugee camps, villages and communities.

The U.N. coordinator says during most of this year, about 100,000 people were forced to flee their homes every month because of fighting. He says there are many social and economic indicators which show how seriously the situation in Burundi is deteriorating.

"I think one of the most dramatic is that life expectancy has declined drastically," he said. "Ten years ago or 11 years ago in 1992, the indicator was an expectancy of 53, almost 54 years. Today the average life expectancy is 40 years."

Mr. Saigal says the United Nations is asking the international community to contribute more than $70 million to provide food, water, health care and other basic services for millions of Burundians. He says the money also will be used to protect the civilian population, support the Arusha peace process and prepare for recovery and rebuilding.