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Tension increases in ongoing land dispute

Map of Burundi

A land dispute that resulted from a river changing its course due to heavy rains some 50 years ago continues to vex neighbouring agricultural communities along the Burundi-Rwanda border.

River Kanyaru flows through Burundi's northern provinces of Ngozi and Muyinga, marking the border with Rwanda's southern provinces of Butare and Kigali Rural.

Agricultural activities for the residents of the hilly two-kilometre-square area known as Sabanerwa, in Burundi's northern province of Ngozi, have suffered due to the dispute over the piece of land. Consequently, tension is rising between the Burundians and Rwandans living along River Kanyaru, with both sides laying claim to Sabanerwa.

On the Burundian side, residents of Rukurazi valley, in Mwumba Commune in Ngozi, say although River Kanyaru initially flowed around Kibinga Hill in Rwanda's Butare Province in the 1960s, it changed course following heaving rains in 1965. Since then, they say, the river has flowed around Sabanerwa, making the disputed land their own.

Moreover, the Burundians say rice-growing by Rwandan farmers contributed to River Kanyaru's change of course into Burundi.

"My parents practiced agricultural activities at the hill [Sabanerwa] by that time [1965], and when I grew up, I also inherited land at Sabanerwa," said Michel Birutegusa, a resident of Rukurazi.

Latest dispute

The latest incident in the Sabanerwa land dispute occurred in early January when Burundian farmers crossed to one side of the River Kanyaru in a bid to cultivate land at Sabanerwa.

Birutegusa said during the incident, Rwandan troops, accompanied by the governor of Rwanda's Butare province, massed at the riverbank to prevent Burundians from cultivating the land.

"I saw them [with my eyes]. They had guns and were wearing military uniforms," Birutegusa said. "On seeing the Rwandan troops, we panicked, that is why we decided not to return to our fields."

He claimed that a few days later, the Rwandan troops left the border and retreated to their territory.

The Burundi army spokesman said the army did not send any troops in response "We favoured talks between administration officials from Burundi and Rwanda instead of frightening the population from both countries," said Maj Adolphe Manirakiza.

The drought prevailing in northern Burundi was a contributing factor to the residents seeking to cultivate the land in Sabanerwa, which is fertile because of manure deposited by the river during the rainy season.

According to Félix Niragira, the governor of Ngozi, two committees - one from each country - are soon to be set up to resolve land disputes on the Burundi-Rwanda border.

"Both committees will work in close collaboration, and we hope that they will settle all the land conflicts observed on borders, namely in Ngozi and Muyinga where such conflicts are currently reported," Niragira said.

Salvator Ntacobamaze, Burundi's home affairs minister, accompanied Niragira on a visit to Rwanda's Butare province on 21 January to discuss the land dispute with the governor of Butare.

Another dispute in Muyinga

A similar land dispute, which had been resolved, is causing renewed tension in the zone of Ruzo, Giteranyi commune in Muyinga. The land dispute began in the 1960s, and local mediators have failed to settle the conflict permanently.

Oswald Rugengamanzi, the head of Giteranyi commune, said the latest dispute dates back some three years ago, with Rwandans and Burundians claiming ownership of a valley known as Rufunzo. The valley was created when the River Kagera - called River Nyabarongo in Rwanda's province of Kigali Rural - changed its course.

"The border is no longer easily definable," Rugengamanzi said. "Due to the change of the river bed following climate change, it is now difficult to know who the valley belongs to."

He said the dispute - that coincided with the start of the planting season - had been resolved with the help of local mediators.

However, Rugengamanzi observed, "Local mediation is not sustainable." He suggested the creation of a joint committee made up by Burundians and Rwandans to settle such land conflicts.

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:

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