The past is a foreign country for some Burundian refugees

News Stories, 7 May 2009

© UNHCR/B.Bannon
A place called Home: Ogeste works his land and looks forward to a happy future as a Tanzanian.

MISHAMO, Tanzania, May 7 (UNHCR) Ogeste Gelevasi sits in front of his humble house, looking out over fields of cassava and tobacco with a wide smile of contentment. He feels at home here in western Tanzania after almost 40 years as a refugee from neighbouring Burundi.

For Ogeste, the country he fled aged two is a foreign country; that's why he, like an estimated 165,000 of the remaining so-called 1972 Burundians living in Mishamo and two other "old settlements," have decided to accept a landmark offer by the government to settle in Tanzania and apply for citizenship.

Just 55,000 of the refugees, dubbed the 1972 Burundians because they or their parents fled that country in that year, have opted to go home under a programme launched in 2008 and expected to end this year. UNHCR this week appealed for extra funds after revising its budget for the 2009 portion of the repatriation and integration programme upwards from US$12.7 million to US$28.2 million.

"We are used to life in Tanzania," Ogeste told recent UNHCR visitors to his thatched hut in Mishamo. "It gave us a plot to farm; it gave us a place where we could live . . . After we were given a choice between two places, we decided to stay in Tanzania."

Ogeste, aged 39, fled to Tanzania in 1972 and has lived in Mishamo ever since. His wife, Janet, and three children were all born and raised in Tanzania.

Some of his friends have decided to go back, but the majority of the Burundians in the Mishamo, Ulyankulu and Katumba "old settlements" want to stay in the country that offered them shelter from the horrors back home.

"My good friend Elia, who I have known for long, is going back with his family. He says he wants to work hard there with his kids and rebuild the country he left. I will miss seeing him here," Ogeste said.

Impatient to become a citizen of Tanzania, Ogeste reflected on his life as a refugee. He started working while still at school and has been a farmer and trader for years, living a life similar to that of Tanzanians in nearby villages.

"When I started this life, it was tough. I worked as a fisherman for a year and saved enough money to start farming and to marry. Later, I set up a small shop, but I also continued farming. So life is good we are clothed; we eat and sleep well," Ogeste explained.

Becoming a Tanzanian citizen will be an immense psychological boost and it could help improve his outlook. He plans to use the opportunity to travel around the country and look for new business. "We are hopeful that as soon as we become citizens of Tanzania, we will be able to do more," he said.

Emmanuel Bilengeko, Ogeste's neighbour, agreed. "Today, we choose to be naturalized because this country is good and the people here have loved us."

Soon people like Ogeste and Emmanuel will be moving out of the old settlements and finding new homes among their fellow Tanzanian citizens around the country. UNHCR and the international community will still be around to help the Tanzanian government ensure that their integration is smooth and sustainable.

By Brendan Bannon in Mishamo and Eveline Wolfcarius in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania