How can it be my home when I've never even seen my homeland?
GITARA TRANSIT CENTRE, Burundi, Dec. 26 (UNHCR) - At 16, Claudine* has just arrived in the country that's supposed to be her homeland, but which she had never seen until 24 hours ago.
"Burundi is my home, that's what my mother told me," says Claudine, who was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania.
In less than six week between the end of October and 11 December, UNHCR and partners helped more than 34,000 Burundian former refugees return to this country from Tanzania. A full 60 percent of them are children under the age of 18, most born in exile to parents who fled civil strife in Burundi in the 1990s.
"Their reintegration is going to be a real challenge," says Maguelone Arsac, UNHCR's community services officer in Burundi. While the Burundians were coming back, she worked day and night at UNHCR-run reception centres near the border, receiving organized convoys carrying those whose refugee status had ceased and had until the end of the year to leave.
The children "have certainly never heard anything good about 'their country' or else their parents would have repatriated before," Arsac added.
In fact, whenever others in her family talked about returning, Claudine always opposed the move. "I heard that in Burundi people killed one another, they shot each other," she says.
Now that she's come back with her mother and younger sister, she finds it hard to believe that Burundi is actually a country at peace -- after all the tales she heard in the refugee camp. And at an age when many teenagers in other countries are looking forward to graduating high school, Claudine has never had any education.
Because their parents stayed outside Burundi, many refugee children lost out on years of schooling.
"This is going to be a big challenge," says Arsac. "Formal schools were closed three years ago in some camps in Tanzania. Some children, mostly young boys, were able to continue studying the Congolese curriculum, or pay to go to informal schools. But the majority of these children have not been to any school at all, and we know it is often difficult for teenagers to enter primary school because of the difference in age and maturity."
However, Arsac says, young people can often be more resilient and adaptable than older returnees.
For others, psychological healing may take longer. Fourteen-year-old Jules,* also born in Tanzania to refugee parents, seemed genuinely surprised not to encounter gunfire and or see armed fighters on the 20-kilometre journey from the border to the transit centre.
"What I know about Burundi is that people are hungry and steal things, people come to your house and take your things, there is continuous war," he says.
His fears grew out of his experiences, not propaganda. Once during his exile, he says, his father brought him secretly back across the border, only to stray into a village battle where they saw a neighbor killed. Later, he says, his father was also killed in Burundi under mysterious circumstances.
Jules admits frankly that he was afraid to come back and would have preferred to remain in Tanzania as a refugee.
After 24 hours in Burundi, the place that now will be his home, Jules admits with a smile that "it's good to be back," but then adds quickly: "the problem is that war will always arise."
Says Arsac: "Peace education could be very important to help them get over what they have gone through and to avoid frustration, anger and rebellion. It's really important to take care of these teenagers as soon as possible because they are the future of Burundi."
By Kitty McKinsey in Gitara Transit Centre, Burundi
*Last names withheld because of ages of children