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Somali Bantus gain Tanzanian citizenship in their ancestral land

News Stories, 3 June 2009

© UNHCR/B.Bannon
In Somalia, Bantu children were denied education for decades, but this Somali Bantu boy, a new Tanzanian citizen, attends school in Chogo settlement in northeastern Tanzania.

CHOGO, Tanzania, June 3 (UNHCR) Some 300 years after their ancestors were taken from here to be sold as slaves, almost 1,300 Somali Bantu refugees are now full citizens of Tanzania.

A further 1,500 refugees in Chogo settlement, in the north-eastern coastal region of Tanga, are still in the process of getting naturalized.

Working and living alongside the local population, many of the Somali Bantu refugees and new citizens can trace their origins to this area of the country, from where their ancestors were transported as slaves. The refugees returned in the early 1990s fleeing civil war and the collapse of Siad Barre's regime in Somalia.

Back then, tens of thousands of Somalis travelled on overcrowded and rickety dhows to the Kenyan harbour of Mombasa. A small group of refugees of Bantu origin made their way even further south, to Tanga, reversing the path their ancestors had taken more than three centuries ago.

Ramadhani Abdalah, a Tanzanian Zigua farmer, remembers very well the day the refugees arrived in Tanga.

"I heard about refugees before, but when they came, it was my first time to actually see a refugee," he now recalls. "I was so surprised. They were talking in the same language as I do, Zigua, but they came from Somalia."

Ramadhani lives in one of the neighbouring villages of Chogo settlement where he prepares land for planting. He is hired by a former Somali Bantu farmer and is paid 12,000 Tanzanian shillings (about US$9) for each acre of land he clears.

At first the government of Tanzania, with assistance from UNHCR, hosted the Somali refugees in Mkuyu camp, also in Tanga region. In March 2003, more than 3,000 refugees were transferred from there to Chogo, a newly-constructed settlement some 80 kilometres away, in a move towards naturalizing the Somali Bantus who wished to stay.

Upon arrival in Chogo, each refugee family received more than 2.5 acres (about one hectare) of land, to farm and to build a home. With the help of UNHCR, working with the Tanzanian authorities and the Tanzanian non-governmental organization, Relief to Development Society, a school, health centre and market were constructed.

Since 2005, the new citizens and the 1,500 refugees awaiting citizenship have been supporting themselves and living together with the surrounding communities.

Haji Sefu Ali, one of the elders in Chogo, proudly shows off his farm. "In Chogo, we have named the villages after places in Somalia," he says. "We are tilling land, raising cattle and chicken and are taking care of ourselves."

Life has been a struggle, adds Fatouma, his neighbour and a grandmother of three, but "today, we are citizens of Tanzania. My granddaughters could even become president one day. In Somalia, for a Bantu, that would not be possible."

By Brendan Bannon and Eveline Wolfcarius
in Chogo, Tanzania

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Finding a Home on Ancestral Land

Somali Bantu refugees gaining citizenship in Tanzania

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Somalia/Ethiopia

In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.

Somalia/Ethiopia

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

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