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Special report on repatriation of Burundian refugees

[Tanzania] Refugees waiting to be loaded onto the homeward bound trucks departure centre, Kanenbwa camp, Tanzania.
Sept pour cent des Tanzaniens de moins de 49 ans seraient séropositifs. (IRIN)

Some of the refugees have started going back to Burundi, and humanitarian workers say this could well mark the beginning of a more generalised movement. however, their reintegration is clouded with uncertainty.

Ten years of war

Burundi's war began in late 1993, triggered by the assassination, in October of that year, of the country's first democratically elected president, Melchoir Ndadaye, a Hutu.

Fighting between mainly Hutu rebels and the military, which was dominated by Tutsis, caused many deaths and rendered large swaths of the country unsafe. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Tanzania.

In November 2003, the country's largest rebel group, the Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie-Force pour la defense de la democratie (CNDD-FDD) faction led by Pierre Nkurunziza, and the government finally signed a comprehensive peace deal, at the heart of which was army reform.

Since then, fighting has ended everywhere except in the hills surrounding the capital, Bujumbura. Here, Agathon Rwasa's Forces nationales de liberation (FNL) rebels have dug in and are fighting the army and, some analysts say, Nkurunziza's CNDD-FDD.

Despite the fighting, many of the 320,000 Burundians in the refugee camps in Kigoma and Kagera regions in western Tanzania are optimistic about peace efforts this time around, which are fuelling their desire to go home.

Previous peace deals were followed by slight increases in the numbers of refugees returning home. Most, however, were sceptical and stayed in the camps awaiting signs of a more enduring peace. That still applies to the more educated of the largely Hutu refugee population, who want to see if elections and army reforms occur before returning. However, humanitarian workers still say that the current movement of returnees could well be the beginning of a final wave returning home.

Questions abound, however, about what awaits them. Many are returning to the east of their country, an area that has been largely inaccessible to humanitarian workers because of fighting. In this area, medical services are stretched, schools are run down and most of the refugees will come to find their homes destroyed.

Access to land, especially for those who have been away for a long time, is already a serious issue for a group of people largely made up of subsistence farmers. This will be exacerbated if and when the 1972 caseload of Burundians, who have been living in Tabora, Tanzania, since fleeing ethnic fighting in the 1970s, go home.

Ready to go home at last

Assembled outside their mud hut in the Nduta Refugee Camp in Kibondo District, Jean Njebarikanavyo, his wife Generose and their eight children represent many of those returning home today. Farmers from Ruyigi Province, they fled Burundi eight years ago after fighting broke out in the hills around them.


Refugees at Nduta camp, Tanzania, enrolling for repatriation
[Tanzania] Refugees at Nduta camp enrolling for repatriation Nduta camp, Kibondo, Tanzania. 17/03/04 ...
Monday, April 19, 2004
Reluctant HIV-positive refugees urged to return home
[Tanzania] Refugees at Nduta camp enrolling for repatriation Nduta camp, Kibondo, Tanzania. 17/03/04 ...
Refugees at Nduta camp enrolling for repatriation Nduta camp, Kibondo, Tanzania

Despite the relative safety of camp life, they simply long to return to their farm in the hills of Buteze Commune. "We have heard about the peace, but know nothing about the politics. No, we just want to get back to the place where we have memories of home," Njebarikanavyo said.
And should the tempo of war increase, he said indifferently, "we will just have to leave again".

Many of the refugees who are going home say that in the months since the latest peace deal was signed on 16 November 2003, they have heard on the radio or from people who have returned that security in Burundi has improved.

But the refugees are not just motivated to return home by their years of yearning. Some observers say another incentive has been the strict implementation, over the last year, of a previously ignored law limiting movement by refugees to a four-kilometre radius around their camps. The Tanzanian government introduced this measure, the observers say, to contain insecurity in the west.

In Kibondo District, inhabited by about 114,000 Burundians, District Commissioner James Mzurikwao has zealously enforced the restriction. A delegation from Refugees International, a rights body, which visited Tanzania and Burundi in March, noted the effect of this measure. It said in a report: "While the conduct of the Tanzanian government does not rise to the level of refoulement [expulsion], the government is implementing policies that create conditions under which the refugees conclude that they have no real option but to return home. Repatriation under such circumstances is not voluntary."

Refugees International recommended that the "Tanzanian national authorities intervene and prevent the district commissioner of Kibondo from intimidating refugees and pressuring them to leave the camps".

Mzurikwao rejected the charges against him, saying that the government was merely implementing tripartite agreements to which it was a signatory, and that the refugees were going home because the reason why they had left "no longer existed". "Anyway, who is pushing whom? The refugees are pushing the authorities to get better facilities to help them leave. If we had 100 lorries today, they would all go immediately," he added.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledges Muzurikwao's history of telling the refugees to leave, but is certain that the repatriations are not forced. "It is a voluntary repatriation, and we are using the register that was started in March 2002," Honorine Sommet-Lange, UNHCR's senior protection officer in Kibondo, told IRIN.

She said many were going back because of the improved security, but that the restrictions were also a factor, as some of those returning had arrived more recently and "are not as well adapted and do not have the coping mechanisms to put up with the restrictions that were imposed last year".

For years, the Burundians have farmed or worked on farms outside the camps as a way of supplementing their rations. Those who have been there for longer are more established and can cope with the restrictions, but those who have not, cannot.

Wait and see

However, there are still plenty of refugees, especially among the more educated, who are more reluctant to return home now.

[Tanzania] Barnabus Bugera, a secondary school teacher in Kanembwa camp Kibondo, Tanzania. 17/03/04

[Tanzania] Barnabus Bugera, a secondary school teacher in Kanembwa camp Kibondo, Tanzania. 17/03/04 ...
Monday, April 19, 2004
[Tanzania] Barnabus Bugera, a secondary school teacher in Kanembwa camp Kibondo, Tanzania. 17/03/04 ...
Barnabus Bugera, a secondary school teacher in Kanembwa camp Kibondo, Tanzania

Humanitarian workers say that some are waiting for their children to complete the school year in the camps in June, after which a significant move is expected in September just before the rains when land can be tilled and crops planted.

Others, such as Barnabas Bugera, a secondary school teacher in Kanembwa Camp, appear to doubt that deep-rooted peace can take hold quickly. "There are several different agreements that need to be brought together, otherwise people will still feel left out. We also have to see real reform in the security services. There will be a shadow hanging over us if the elections take place without the reform of the armed forces. We still remember what happened in 1993," he said.

More help needed

There are no estimates for the numbers of refugees expected back in Burundi this year, but UNHCR's planning figures are 130,000 for this year, 135,000 for 2005 and the rest in 2006.

At present, most of the returnees are leaving the camps in Kibondo District. To the north, in Ngara District, some 90,000 refugees are still in camps, but UNHCR is not expecting them to return immediately, as facilitated repatriations from these camps have been on going for some time, and those who remain are showing a reluctance to go home.

In Kasulu District, to the south of Kibondo, the figures for repatriation are also low. But this is because the border crossing into Makamba has not been opened due to UNHCR's long-standing concerns about security in southeastern Burundi, to which most of these refugees would return. But a trial convoy will begin returning refugees from the Kasulu camps through the Manyovo-Mugina crossing on 20 April.

Does that help?

Humanitarian organisations say landmines on the Burundi side of this crossing are yet another factor they have to contend with. Following a recent meeting that announced the opening of this latest crossing, the government of Burundi agreed to provide UNHCR with information on landmine locations, demarcation and clearance efforts. Implementing partners are hoping to begin mine-awareness campaigns for refugees about to go home.

Meanwhile in Kibondo, the initial rush for repatriation has waned due to lack of capacity on both sides of the border. In Tanzania there are limited numbers of trucks to take the refugees home and, up until now, loads have exceeded the recommended number of 50 refugees per truck.
In Burundi, the problem is even more acute, as the transit centre at Gisuru, just over the border from Tanzania, is cramped, making the process of registering the returnees a complicated, lengthy and stressful affair.

Recognising the constraints, UNHCR and its implementing partners have slashed the numbers of returnees to four convoys of 500 refugees each per week. "This cannot just be seen as a logistical exercise. We have to make sure this remains a humanitarian operation," Svante Yngrot, the acting head of UNHCR's field office in Ruyigi, in Burundi, said. "It needs to be decreased so we can do a better job, and then, once we are better prepared, the numbers can be increased."

Still a long way to go

Once in Burundi, the Njebarikanavyo family registered as returnees, received their three-month repatriation package of food and non-food items, and then headed off to their commune. By the time they got to Buteze they had lost their cooking and farming items, as well as their tools. Unable to do anything about this they continued their journey.

The distance the returnees had to walk once they had been deposited in their commune was another issue. The 14 km the Njebarikanavyos walked, burdened with packs weighing a total of 700 kg, was arduous, but less so than the 30-km trek facing others.

Although officials in Burundi talk of introducing a system of smaller trucks that can then take the returnees and their loads closer to their hills, for the moment, an aid worker said, "they will have to rely on the amazing ability people in the Great Lakes have developed to walk long distances with large loads".

[Burundi] Generose Njebarikanavyo and her children stand in the spot where their houseused to stand before it was destroyed by the army Buteze, Ruyigi province, Burundi. 23/03/04

[Burundi] Generose Njebarikanavyo and her children stand in the spot where their houseused to stand before it was destroyed by the army Buteze, Ruyigi province, Burundi. 23/03/04 ...
Monday, April 19, 2004
[Burundi] Generose Njebarikanavyo and her children stand in the spot where their houseused to stand before it was destroyed by the army Buteze, Ruyigi province, Burundi. 23/03/04 ...
Generose Njebarikanavyo and her children stand in the spot where their house used to stand before it was destroyed by the army Buteze, Ruyigi province, Burundi

Another question being raised concerns the repatriation package. Although officially supposed to last three months, concern is growing amongst some aid workers that this may not be the case. Moreover, with refugees returning to Burundi at a time when it will soon be too late to plant their seeds, pressure on food will be acute.

Welcome home, but what to?

Njebarikanavyo knew that the land he had worked in the years before fleeing the war was still unoccupied. His father, who had remained in Burundi and still lived next door, had somehow got in touch when he was in the camps and told him so.

Like most other returnees, his house had been destroyed by the army years before to forestall rebels trying to use it for shelter. But his father was letting the family sleep in his home. Other families without relatives are being welcomed home and looked after in the same manner by neighbours, but not all are lucky enough to find their land unoccupied.

"Someone has sold three-quarters of our land while we were away," Virginie Bigimane, a returnee living on the same hill as Njebarikanavyo, said. "It was then sold on, and we are not sure who to. We will try and sort it out through the chef de colline [chief of the hill, similar to a community chief], but we are worried that there may be problems, as they could have used the money for something else," she added.

Hilaire Nikobasa, a government official in Ruyigi Province, to which many refugees are returning, said so far there had been very few land disputes, and those that existed were being settled by community leaders.

A traditional system existing in pre-colonial times known as bashingantahe, meaning "the maker of justice, the defender of equity and guardian of order", is being revived and increasingly applied in settling disputes. But observers say that with increasing numbers of returnees, land disputes are becoming more frequent, and are sometimes being resolved violently.

"Another worrying sign is the increase in the price of land," an agronomist aid worker said. "In some areas near Ruyigi, it has gone up 50 percent in a few months. This is leading to some people being forced to grow [crops] in areas that they didn't cultivate before, mostly because they are not very fertile."

The general feeling is that while the problem may not be significant now, preparations need to be made to avert a potential crisis.

Because of the impending return of hundreds of thousands of refugees and the potential disputes, a more efficient system of resolving land disputes must be established, a human rights lawyer, Pascale Nzibonera, told IRIN. "This shouldn't be a problem as the administration banned the sale of property belonging to refugees. But some of this land has been sold anyway, sometimes even by the refugees themselves," he said.

Because of the lack of real documentation, he added, there had been a lot of buying and selling of land without people really knowing who owned what.

Stretched infrastructure

But concern on the ground is not limited to land issues. After years of war and neglect, social services in many of the areas to which the returnees are heading are already stretched. Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international medical NGO, is providing support for seven government clinics in and around Ruyigi, but there is concern that people returning to their home areas without having access to proper shelter during the rainy season will add even more strain to the system.

Moreover, Burundian children in the refugee camps were assured at least a basic level of education and, in some cases, were able to attend secondary schools. But in a country now classified as one of the poorest in the world, the education system is struggling enormously as schools are run down and some teachers have been on strike due to lack of pay. So, if the refugees return in large numbers, it will bring pressure to bear on local administrators. These are all issues the authorities acknowledge, but admit they cannot handle by themselves.

"We already have packed classrooms and a shortage of teachers and materials," Nikobasa said. "Health care will, without doubt, also be a problem. If they [the refugees] come back in numbers and there are people ready to help, it will be OK. "But if there aren't these organisations on the ground, it will be miserable," he added.

For the moment, UNHCR says it is still at the assessment stage of trying to find out what Burundi's absorption capacity is and establish what needs to be done where. But at a time when the embattled country is also trying to find funds for a long-awaited disarmament process and organising elections, the challenges posed by a large-scale repatriation are immense.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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