UNHCR programme provides shelter for 58,000 Burundian returnees
MUYINGA, Burundi, December 31 (UNHCR) - When Capitoline Misigaro returned to her home in north-east Burundi after almost a decade in a Tanzanian refugee camp, she knew that life would be tough. But it turned out to be much harder than the 30-year-old widow had imagined.
Pointing to a five-square-metre hut made of branches and covered by leaves, Misigaro said she and her three children had spent their first year crammed into the wretched shelter.
"When it rained we could not sleep, and the water came in. The children got sick because of the cold. But I earn only 400 Burundi francs (36 cents) per day for work on the fields, and so I could not afford to build a house," she told recent visitors to her village in Muyinga province.
But life changed dramatically for the better when Misigaro was included in a UNHCR shelter programme that has helped some 58,000 refugee returnees in Burundi over the past five years. And the programme is likely to be expanded in 2008 with thousands more returnee families expected.
The UN refugee agency constructed a small brick and mortar house for Misigaro and her family - since moving in, their health and living conditions have improved tremendously.
"With our new house, things are different. My children are healthy and can go to school," she said. "I would really like to thank those who have financed our new house. Without this help, we would still live over there," the returnee added, pointing to the decaying shelter.
In principle, all returnee families without shelter are eligible to receive UNHCR assistance to build a small three-room house, which each cost the agency about $US 500. The most vulnerable households are given priority, especially those headed by females and those including disabled or elderly members.
About 90 percent of the refugees assisted under the UNHCR programme are given the materials and then construct their new houses themselves, with some professional guidance. This creates a greater sense of ownership and also helps them to acquire additional skills.
Sylvestre Nkurikiye, aged 66, built his new house on the ruins of his former home, which was torched during an attack on his village in Burundi's southern province of Makamba in 1998. "We received the beams, the roofing, some cement, the doors and the windows. I made the bricks myself, and the neighbours also participated in the construction works," said Nkurikiye, who hired a mason to help build the walls.
He and his family now have a solid roof over their head and land on which they grow enough corn, manioc, beans, peanuts and oil palms to survive. "I am happy to be back in my native country. The security situation is now good," affirmed Nkurikiye, who lost two children killed by landmines during their flight to Tanzania almost 10 years ago.
Burundi, one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, has welcomed back some 380,000 refugees - or 5 percent of the population - from surrounding countries since 2002. Initial reintegration measures, like the housing scheme, are vital in ensuring sustainable return.
Most of the returnees making use of UNHCR return programmes since 2002 have been subsistence farmers - and most have been able to recover their land. But more than 80 percent of returnees have had to construct or buy a new shelter, according to a study conducted earlier this year by UNHCR and the World Food Programme.
With returnee numbers expected to rise in 2008, UNHCR expects that it will have to expand the shelter programme in Burundi. Thanks to contributions from donors such as the European Commission and Japan, UNHCR will be able to provide at least 14,300 vulnerable families with shelter over the next year.
By Andreas Kirchhof in Muyinga and Makamba, Burundi