UNHCR-sponsored village promotes reconciliation in Burundi

News Stories, 2 October 2008

© UNHCR/A.Kirchhof
Ethnic Tutsis and Hutus live together in harmony in the new village of Muriza.

MURIZA, Burundi, October 2 (UNHCR) A few years ago, Zita and Eusébie might have regarded each other as mortal enemies, but today they are learning to live together and liking it.

The two women, both in their 40s, are from rival ethnic groups Zita is a Tutsi, while Eusébie is a Hutu. Conflict between the two groups since the early 1960s has left tens of thousands dead and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere in Burundi or in neighbouring countries.

Both women were among those forcibly displaced, but they are now being brought together by a pilot project funded by the UN refugee agency in eastern Burundi's Ruyigi province. UNHCR is creating a village for 98 families, Muriza, where vulnerable families from both ethnic groups rub shoulders in peace.

The first families have moved into new mud brick homes, while UNHCR has distributed half-acre plots to landless refugee returnees. The new village is a potent example of how the scars of the past can be healed in Burundi and how reconciliation can be promoted. Hutus live next door to Tutsis, while former refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) share schools and hospitals with locals.

"The returnees and the displaced were, very much from the beginning, willing to live together," said Tony Garcia Carranza, the head of UNHCR's office in Ruyigi. "We do not see any friction between both groups it is really a non-issue."

Indeed, people like Zita and Eusébie are finding that they have a lot in common. "Things are going very well between both ethnic groups. And I do not speak only for me, but for all returnees," said Eusébie.

Like Zita, she is a vulnerable widow with many children to feed, and few resources to do so. She recently returned to Burundi after living for more than 10 years in a refugee camp in Tanzanian. Zita was an IDP, like many Burundian Tutsis forced to flee their home, but she does not want to return to her village.

When a UNHCR team recently visited, the two colourfully dressed women sat side-by-side on a small wooden bench, looking at the houses being built on a nearby hilltop and talking about their pasts and their common future.

Zita recalled her flight in 1993, when her old village was attacked and all the Tutsis killed. "It was only me and my family who survived and could flee. I will never forget what happened that day." She will also remember the day in early September when UNHCR gave her a new home in Muriza.

Eusébie shares the house with her eight children and three orphans whom she brought back with her from Nduta refugee camp in north-west Tanzania. She also had painful memories of fleeing home with her children and was not sure whether it was safe enough to return to Burundi.

She decided to return after talking to refugees, all of them either widows or single mothers, who took part in a "go-and-see" visit organized by the UN refugee agency. They visited the Muriza site and talked to IDPs in the area. Most decided to return, but some of those who took part decided to stay in Tanzania.

UNHCR thinks that Muriza could be a model for other villages both providing homes and land for returning refugees and IDPs and helping to bring together Tutsis and Hutus. The refugee agency, in cooperation with the government and other partners, is examining the possibility of expanding the project.

Eusébie and Zita are clearly supporters. "When you build more of these villages, it will be a good idea to integrate people from both ethnic groups," Eusébie said, adding: "Those who were afraid of each other before, will get used to each other."

Since UNHCR started its voluntary repatriation operation in 2002, more than 450,000 refugees have returned to Burundi from Tanzania and other countries. Most IDPs have also gone home.

By Andreas Kirchhof in Muriza, Burundi




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Somali Bantu refugees gaining citizenship in Tanzania

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

Burundian humanitarian worker Maggy Barankitse received the 2005 Nansen Refugee Award for her tireless work on behalf of children affected by war, poverty and disease. The Nansen medal was presented at a grand ceremony in Brussels by H.R.H. Princess Mathilde of Belgium and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin.

Accepting the award, Barankitse said her work was inspired by one single goal: peace. "Accept your fellow man, sit down together, make this world a world of brothers and sisters," she said. "Nothing resists love, that's the message that I want to spread."

Sponsored by UNHCR corporate partner Microsoft, the ceremony and reception at Concert Noble was also attended by Belgium's Minister for Development Co-operation Armand De Decker, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, renowned Burundian singer Khadja Nin, Congolese refugee and comedian Pie Tshibanda, and French singer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Julien Clerc. Among others.

The Nansen Refugee Award 2005

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Since the end of October more than 26,000 Burundian former refugees have been assisted by UNHCR and its partners to return home from the Mtabila camp in northwest Tanzania. The operation is organized with the Government of Tanzania to help some 35,500 Burundian former refugees go back to Burundi by the end of 2012, when the Mtabila camp officially closes.

Refugee status for most Burundians in Tanzania formally ended in August following individual interviews to assess remaining protection needs. A total of 2,715 people will continue to be hosted as refugees in Tanzania, while the rest, the last of a population of refugees who left Burundi some 20 years ago, must return home. This is not an easy move after having spent most of your life -- and sometimes all of it -- in exile.

While awaiting their turn to join one of the daily convoys to bring them home, Burundian former refugees are preparing themselves for a fresh start…

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Africa is the continent most affected by the tragedy of forced displacement. While millions of refugees were able to return to Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and South Sudan over the last 15 years, the numbers of internally displaced people continued to grow. At the beginning of 2009, in addition to some 2.3 million refugees, an estimated 11.6 million people were internally displaced by conflict in Africa.

To address forced displacement on the continent, the African Union is organizing a special summit on refugees, returnees and internally displaced people from October 19-23 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Heads of state and government will look at the challenges and at ways to find solutions to forced displacement. They are also expected to adopt a Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people (IDP) in Africa, which would be the first legally binding instrument on internal displacement with a continental scope. This photo gallery looks at some of the forcibly displaced around Africa, many of whom are helped by UNHCR.

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek Safety

He used to fix broken bicycles in Burundi, but as political troubles and killings mounted Nestor Kamza decided to flee. In search of safety he and his family walked non-stop for 24-hours until they reached Tanzania. His family is among more than 100,000 people who have fled from political violence in Burundi and arrived in the Nyarugusu camp which has almost tripled in size. To alleviate overcrowding in the camp, UNHCR and its partners have planned to open three new camps and have started moving tens of thousands of Burundian refugees to a new, less congested, home
Tanzania: Setting Sail to SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Setting Sail to Safety

More than 60,000 Burundian refugees have arrived in Tanzania since the beginning of May. On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, hundreds board a ferry to Kigoma, Tanzania, before continuing to Nyaragusu camp.
Rwanda: Flight from BurundiPlay video

Rwanda: Flight from Burundi

In recent weeks, the number of Burundian refugees crossing into Rwanda has increased significantly. According to the Government of Rwanda, since the beginning of April, 25,004 Burundians, mostly women and children, have fled to Rwanda. Many said they had experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the upcoming elections.