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Tears and cassava: joyous homecoming in Burundi after a lifetime in exile

Telling the Human Story, 3 December 2012

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
Feliyaza Bucumi (right), 30, who had been a refugee in Tanzania since he was 15, is welcomed home by his brother in Muyange village, southern Burundi.

MUYANGE, Burundi, December 3 (UNHCR) After spending half his life in exile, 30-year-old Feliyaza Bucumi has finally brought his six children and pregnant 28-year-old wife back to his ancestral home. "Whenever we talked about Burundi, they thought it was a fairy tale," Feliyaza says with a smile, gesturing to the children around him, who range in age from one to almost 10.

Even though they were born as refugees in Tanzania, "the children told me to go home" to Burundi, he relates in a UNHCR-run transit centre as the family prepares to board a truck for the last leg of the journey to his home hamlet of Muyange in Nyanza-Lac commune.

It is one of the three areas drawing most of the 17,000 former refugees who have come home from Mtabila camp since the end of October with the help of the UN refugee agency after the government of Tanzania found that some 37,500 Burundians living in the country needed to leave by the end of the year. A further 2,715 are being allowed to remain in Tanzania as refugees until long-term solutions can be found for them.

Feliyaza was only 15 when he fled to Tanzania, one of hundreds of thousands who fled civil strife in Burundi in the 1990s. Over the years, UNHCR has assisted more than a million return and re-establish their lives in Burundi, and now is helping the last come back and reintegrate. These include thousands of children, like his, who were born abroad and have never seen their supposed homeland.

Sitting in the Mabanda transit centre where his family has had a hot meal, Feliyaza's main concern is for his pregnant wife, Vastina, who will travel to their home village separately in a UNHCR van.

"I am very happy and I have no problems except I am worried about my wife because she is seven months pregnant," he says. The four-hour bus trip from Tanzania had been rough on her, but all she had to say was: "I am very tired."

Upon reaching Muyange, the family is met by Feliyaza's brother and other joyous villagers. When the UNHCR trucks arrive, residents many of whom had also been refugees in Mtabila rush from the market to greet the returnees with warm hugs and a few tears. There are shouts of "Amahoro," the Kirundi greeting which means "peace."

"What were you waiting for?" someone calls out. "There's no war here," yell several others, referring to the propaganda they felt had caused many to delay their homecoming. "Today I ate cassava," adds another villager. "Look at me I'm healthy."

A UNHCR protection associate who has accompanied the convoy to Muyange explains: "The residents want all the people in Mtabila to come back."

One older woman dressed in bright yellow, with tears streaming down her face, is hugging men and women she hasn't seen for years and calling out loudly: "Turatashe! Turatashe!" ("We returned home")

For Feliyaza there's little time for celebration. He sets about unloading the family's possessions from the UNHCR trucks and wondering how he will get them to his plot of land and how he will build a home for his family on the land, where he plans to farm.

For now, though, he's just relieved to be back on Burundian soil: "I feel glad because I'm among my relatives."

By Kitty McKinsey in Muyange, Burundi




UNHCR country pages

Returnees in Myanmar

During the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border into Bangladesh, citing human rights abuses by Myanmar's military government. In exile, refugees received shelter and assistance in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazaar region of Bangladesh. More than 230,000 of the Rohingya Muslims have returned since 1992, but about 22,000 still live in camps in Bangladesh. To promote stability in returnee communities in Myanmar and to help this group of re-integrate into their country, UNHCR and its partner agencies provide monitors to insure the protection and safety of the returnees as well as vocational training, income generation schemes, adult literacy programs and primary education.

Returnees in Myanmar

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

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