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Determination and hard work help 1972 Burundian returnees


Determination and hard work help 1972 Burundian returnees

In Burundi, former refugees who return after 36 years of exile face many challenges as they try to rebuild their lives.
3 June 2008
Returnee Abel Ntibuhezwa, aged 75, talks to a UNHCR visitor next to the home he is building on his land in southern Burundi.

SHANGA, Burundi, June 3 (UNHCR) - The past is a foreign country for Abel Ntibuhezwa, even if it is his homeland of Burundi. But after living almost half of his life in Tanzania, the 75-year-old has returned to his native province of Rutana in southern Burundi to start a new chapter in his unusually long life.

The old man smiled broadly as he recently showed members of a UNHCR team around the house he was building in the small Shanga district at an age when most people in the industrialized world are enjoying retirement and most men in Burundi - a country with an average life expectancy of 48 - are dead.

"To build such a house is really hard work at my age. Many of my family members have died. Normally, they would do all the work for me", he explained, while adding that support from his community made things easier. "We have been so warmly welcomed here at home. Our neighbours have shared with us the few things they have, and they have promised to help me build the roof."

Aside from his age and energy, Ntibuhezwa is also unusual in being one of the "1972 Burundians" - primarily ethnic Hutu Burundians who fled their country in 1972 and found refuge in Tanzania. Unlike refugees from later outflows, most have indicated they have no desire to return.

But in March, the UN refugee agency launched a new repatriation operation for up to 46,000 of the 1972 Burundians from three settlements in Tanzania. Some 1,500 Burundians, including Ntibuhezwa, his wife, daughter and two grandchildren, have since returned with UNHCR help.

UNHCR in February launched an appeal for US$21 million to support the repatriation, local integration and naturalization of the 1972 Burundians in Tanzania. By June, the funding level was at 47 percent. The two-year programme aims to end one of the world's most protracted refugee situations.

Most of the Burundians in the so-called "old settlements" of Katumba, Mishamo and Ulyankulu, however, have indicated that they want to stay and apply for Tanzanian citizenship. That means some 172,000 people.

One of Ntibuhezwa's daughters was among those unwilling to return to Burundi, but the septuagenarian never gave up his dream of one day returning to the country he fled when a series of large-scale massacres swept the south. His hope never wavered, despite successive waves of violence over the years, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

He thinks that things have changed for the better in Burundi since rivals signed a peace agreement in 2003. "The situation is good, it is peaceful here. I returned because I was feeling nostalgia," Ntibuhezwa said, adding: "I often wrote letters from the refugee camp to my brother's children, who were still in Burundi."

After coming home, Ntibuhezwa reclaimed his old plot of land and soon started building and cultivating the earth. "We were lucky, because members of my family had kept my land free. Nobody has ever occupied it," he said, alluding to a problem faced by many of the 1972 Burundians who return.

Many find that their land has been occupied and, as often as not, resold and divided up. To find solutions to this complex issue, UNHCR is taking a greater role in programmes aimed at the peaceful resolution of land disputes.

The refugee agency is also working with the authorities to find solutions for those who have difficulty gaining access to land, which is a scarce commodity in this small country in the middle of Africa.

Ntibuhezwa and other returnees have been receiving assistance from UNHCR and other aid organizations until they can manage on their own. As vulnerable returnee families from the 1972 group, they are eligible for food rations from the World Food Programme.

In addition, the family has also received cash grants of about US$45 per person from UNHCR to buy food and non-food items. Ntibuhezwa said the reintegration support was vital. "Had we not received it, we would already have died", he said.

UNHCR has repatriated more than 310,000 Burundians from special refugee camps in Tanzania under a first operation launched in 2002. In addition, tens of thousands of Burundian refugees have also returned home on their own from Tanzania and other nearby countries, bringing the total number of refugees returning to Burundi to around 400,000.

The UN refugee agency is expecting the rate of returns to accelerate this year, due to Tanzania's decision to close at least two of the remaining three camps hosting Burundian refugees and because of hopes for a lasting peace in Burundi.

By Andreas Kirchhof in Shanga, Burundi