Festive homecoming for Burundian refugees
BUJUMBURA, Burundi, Sept 10 (UNHCR) - More than 260 Burundian refugees from camps in western Tanzania have returned home via the Gahumo border crossing in eastern Burundi to the cheerful welcome of song and dance by a local women's group. It was the first UNHCR-organised convoy to enter Burundi through the newly-opened border crossing in Cankuzo province.
As the eight-truck convoy rolled across the Tanzania/Burundi border on Monday, dozens of women broke into loud cheers. Singing in Kirundi, the women told the returnees, "Burundi is your home, you are welcome."
"I would have never thought that people would come to welcome us with traditional songs and dances," said Pascasie Nyandwi, speaking in Kirundi, as she cradled her 2-year-old child. Joining the festivities, she clapped her hands to the rhythm of the songs as she peered into the crowd in an attempt to pick out family members from among the crowd that had gathered at the border to welcome the convoy.
The convoy, which was escorted from Tanzania by a government delegation headed by the Kibondo District Commissioner, was met in Burundi by Cankuzo Governor Rubuka Aloys.
Speaking at Gahumo, the governor assured the returnees of the local community's support for their re-integration, adding that local reception committees had been set up for this purpose.
"We are here to show you that we support and encourage your return and invite you to contribute to peace and development of your country," Aloys told the returnees, some of whom were repatriating after 10 years in exile.
The opening of a second entry point into Burundi coincided with a meeting Monday in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, between President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and the head of Burundi's transitional government, Domitien Ndayizeye. The two leaders were meeting to review the Burundi peace process that has been marred by fighting in various parts of the country. Fresh fighting erupted on Monday between two rebel groups just outside the Burundi capital, Bujumbura.
Monday's convoy transported 161 refugees from camps in Kibondo, western Tanzania, while 99 others repatriated from Ngara to the north-west. Some 1,500 Burundian refugees in Kibondo district have signed up for voluntary return via the Gahumo entry point.
The Gahumo/Murusagamba border crossing becomes the second official entry point for UNHCR-assisted returns from Tanzania. Since March 2002, UNHCR has used the Kobero border crossing in north-east Burundi, through which it has assisted the return of nearly 50,000 Burundian refugees.
The opening of the Gahumo border crossing is the outcome of an agreement reached during a meeting held on 20 August between officials from Burundi and Tanzania and UNHCR to review the progress of the voluntary return programme for Burundian refugees in Tanzania. The tripartite meeting, held in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, reiterated an earlier recommendation which proposed the reactivation of three new border crossing points providing more direct access for returnees. The opening of two additional crossing points is, however, dependent upon an assessment of security in the two areas where the proposed entry points are located: Makamba in the south and Gisuru to the south-east.
Concerns about security in many parts of Burundi have confined UNHCR's return operation to the relatively-safe northern part of the country. Twice-weekly convoys have in the past transported registered returnees from their camps in Tanzania to their communes in northern Burundi through the Kobero entry point. Returnees receive a return package consisting of three months of food provided by the UN World Food Programme and basic household supplies. Similar basic assistance is being given to refugees who are making their own way home via Gisuru in the south-east and Mugina in the south.
The UN refugee agency started helping Burundian refugees home in March 2002. By the end of 2002, a total of 53,283 had returned home, 31,421 of them with UNHCR assistance. By the end of July this year, another 48,000 had returned home voluntarily, bringing to more than 100,000 the total number of returnees in the last 17 months.