Returning to Burundi after years as a refugee in Tanzania, Jonas Saya knew it would be difficult to reclaim his land from former neighbours who had settled on it.
"I wanted my children to get a home of their own," he said. Saya, 56, returned with six children after spending 37 years in Ulyankulu old settlement, western Tanzania.
One of the many Burundians who fled their country after civil war broke out in 1972, Saya had left his land vacant.
Over the years, however, the government encouraged people who had stayed behind to occupy vacant land and even offered titles.
In 2006, when Saya returned to prepare for the repatriation of his family, he found that his former Tutsi neighbour André Kareke had settled on the land, sparking off a dispute.
Such disputes, officials said, have become so common that they top the list of cases in Burundi courts. According to Nestor Niyonkuru, information officer at the national land commission, some 10,771 disputes between returnees and incumbents had been registered by December 2008.
Of these, 3,627 have been settled either by conciliation through the commission, which was set up in 2006, or by amicable arrangement between the parties to the conflict.
Among those who reached an amicable arrangement are Saya and Kareke, who agreed to share the land.
"I wanted peace for myself, my children and my children’s children," Kareke told IRIN. "That is the reason I accepted. I now have a small portion, but what is important is that we live peacefully with them [the returnees]."
"We will die in a few years [but] we want to leave peace behind us," he added. "If our children see us tearing [ourselves apart] over this land, they will never stop fighting."
Photo: Judith Basutama/IRIN
Refugees return home: Many come back to find disputes over land they once owned - file photo
End of a dream
It was, however, not easy to resolve the issue. Kareke remembers the day he saw Saya's family coming back to claim the land was like the "end of a dream".
"I had big land, I was thinking I could leave it to my children and grandchildren," he said. "Their return meant the end of these dreams."
Armed with a title from the government, Kareke refused to accept the fact that someone else had come to claim the land.
"I got in touch with him but he told me he bought it from the government," Saya recalls. "I told him that I only wanted to live in peace with him."
Unlike many other returnees who insisted the occupants of the land must vacate as soon as the returnees arrived, Saya softened his position.
"I knew I could not get him off the land," he said. "I just wanted an arrangement to make things easier, but even then he rejected every proposal I made."
Eventually, they agreed to share the land. Even then, Kareke wanted to cut it into two equal shares - a proposal Saya rejected, saying he had a big family.
Saya had left his brothers in Tanzania, and they would one day claim a share of the same land. Finally, with the help of elders and neighbours, they reached an agreement later endorsed by the land commission.
Watching Saya and Kareke joking together now, it is difficult to believe they ever had a serious land dispute. "When [visitors] bring him beer, he [Kareke] invites me to share," Saya said.
To ensure Saya can spare some land for his brothers when they return from Tanzania, he was given a bigger share. "What matters now is that we live in peace," he said. "Big or small, the question is settled now."
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