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Former refugee offers sympathetic welcome home to Burundian returnees


Former refugee offers sympathetic welcome home to Burundian returnees

Tatien Ndajujuta spent 10 years of his life in exile with his family, before returning to his homeland, Burundi, where he now receives returning refugees on behalf of the UN refugee agency.
11 January 2006
UNHCR registration clerk and former refugee Tatien Ndajujuta welcomes new returnees at the airport and accompanies them back to Bujumbura, Burundi's capital.  UNHCR/C.-L.Grayson

BUJUMBURA, Burundi, Jan 11 (UNHCR) - It is Saturday afternoon and Tatien Ndajujuta is on his way to the airport to welcome two families of Burundian refugees. They're coming home after nearly 10 years in Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and he is at the airport on behalf of the UN refugee agency to help them with the formalities to re-enter Burundi.

He knows exactly what they will be going through, not only because of his job with UNHCR, but mostly because he and his family followed the same path home eighteen months earlier.

Like a dozen former refugees now working for UNHCR in Burundi, Tatien now uses his personal knowledge of what it means to be a refugee in his daily work. As a repatriation assistant, he receives refugees returning to Burundi by air from various countries such as Zambia, Malawi, Belgium or Benin. Sometimes he greets people he knows, people he met in exile.

"Someone who has been a refugee has different reactions than someone who never had to flee, who never had to live in a camp," Tatien says now. "Maybe we have a special understanding of the difficulties faced by the refugees and of their expectations because we have first-hand experience of what being a refugee feels like."

When Tatien meets returning refugees at the airport, he knows that the stress of landing in a place last seen in the heat of war can reawaken old terrors. He knows what it feels like to find your house destroyed and to have to build a new life in a country that has changed considerably.

He had to overcome these challenges himself when he decided to put an end to nearly ten years of exile that took him, his wife and their three children from Bujumbura to Benin, with stops in the DRC and in Tanzania.

Since January 2005, nearly 70,000 Burundian refugees have returned to their country, mostly from Tanzanian camps. More than 400,000 Burundians are still living in exile.

Tatien's exile started when he fled to Uvira in the DRC in 1995, because he was "personally targeted." Then working as a journalist for Burundi's national TV, he says a work-related conflict with a news director escalated into a threat by an extremist militia to murder him because of his ethnicity - at a time when hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing Burundi because of an ethnic conflict.

The family's peaceful days in Uvira were short. When a war erupted in eastern DRC in 1996, the family had to flee again. "We started walking south, thinking that the attack would soon be over," Tatien recalls. "We took nothing with us because we expected to return shortly." But the crackle of gunfire never seemed to stop so the family kept walking. After days of marching, the only hope of finding peace again seemed to lie in reaching Tanzania - a long journey by moonlight across Lake Tanganyika in an overcrowded canoe.

"It was night time when we arrived in the camp in Tanzania. It had been raining. I clearly remember seeing some mothers trying to make a fire out of wet wood to prepare food for their children with no tools, in a used oil container. When I walked out of the collective tent on the first morning, I lost all hope. It seemed that nothing was there for us anymore. Tears poured from my eyes."

Despite this bleak initial assessment, Tatien's family got used to the life in Kasulu camp, where they lived with thousands of compatriots for five years, running a restaurant and helping create a high school.

"I always knew we would return (to Burundi) one day. I hoped people would grow tired of fighting." And the time did come to pack the suitcases again - but, not to return home. The family had been offered a chance to resettle in Benin. Since peace at home still seemed far away, the family travelled across the African continent in search of a better life.

The experience proved difficult and the desire to return to Burundi became stronger. From Benin's capital Cotonou, Tatien and his wife closely followed the peace talks in Arusha. As soon as return seemed possible, the family went back home.

"It felt like heading to a foreign country again, faces had changed," Tatien says. "But people treated us nicely. I never had any resentment. I always said: Why kill a man? You get nothing out of it. Better kill a cow: at least you can eat its meat."

Soon after his return, Tatien was hired by UNHCR. Now, at Bujumbura's airport, he smiles to see that those arriving at the airport from Lubumbashi are wearing their nicest outfits. Little girls in pastel frilly dresses discover their homeland, just as Tatien's own children did quite recently.

It reminds him of when - not so long ago - outsiders would visit his camp in Tanzania and discover, to their astonishment, that "the refugees were clean and properly clothed."

And that leads to another memory. Recently, Tatien visited the Tanzanian camps as a UNHCR staff member accompanying a Burundian delegation. He met again some Tanzanian authorities he had known as a refugee.

"One of them asked why I was there and I said I was working with UNHCR in Burundi. He looked surprised, and jokingly said 'Oh, you had a future, after all!'"

By Catherine-Lune Grayson in Bujumbura, Burundi