Repatriation of Burundians from Congo launched with convoy of 240
MUTUMBIZI TRANSIT CENTRE, Burundi, October 5 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Tuesday launched an assisted repatriation programme for Burundian refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a first group of 244 people crossing to the border town of Gatumba.
The refugees in Tuesday's convoy of trucks are among some 10,000 expected to go back to Burundi over the coming months at a rate of one convoy per week. Most are from the western Burundian provinces of Bubanza, Bujumbura rural and Cibitoke, or from the southern province of Bururi. Once home, they will benefit from UNHCR reintegration programmes, including the provision of health care, education and shelter kits.
This particular return was the first that UNHCR has been able to facilitate from Congo's South Kivu province, where insecurity has until now prevented repatriations from occurring. The 15,000 refugees there - mainly in the Uvira and Fizi regions - are the remnants of the tens of thousands of Burundians who fled ethnic clashes in their homeland in 1972 or in the early 1990s.
This UNHCR writer accompanied some of the returnees on one of the trucks making the two-hour journey from a transit centre in Uvira to Burundi. It turned into a joyful affair, with the refugees singing for much of the way and dancing when they reached the Gatumba crossing and saw the Burundian flag.
Once in Burundi, some of the women in the lead vehicle recognized the roads they had used when fleeing to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In their excitement, they shouted directions to the driver as they approached the Mutumbizi transit centre near the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, where they had a hot meal.
The refugees were also given aid packages to help them get started back in their home areas. These included shelter material and food and they also received cash grants. While some only had two hours more to go from the transit centre, others had to wait another day to reach their villages.
"I cannot wait to reach home," said 82-year-old Elisabeth, who fled Burundi with her husband in 1972. "We left so long ago that I don't know what I can expect, but I missed my country. I am so happy to be back," she added with a big smile on her wrinkled face. She was heading to Buburi province in the south.
Pierre, 22, was returning with his grandparents, who want to live out their remaining years in their home country after more than 30 years in South Kivu. "I want to go back because I will be free in Burundi. Here [in DRC] I do not have an identity," said Pierre, who has been studying agronomy. "I am very happy, but I am also scared because I do not know Burundi."
Of the 15,000 Burundian refugees still in South Kivu, 10,000 have told UNHCR they want to go home. Of the remaining 5,000, many are hoping to settle permanently in the DRC, and we are working with the government to address their integration needs.
Including the refugees in South Kivu, there are 16,500 Burundian refugees in DRC and close to 80,000 in other countries surrounding Burundi. Over the past six years more than half a million have returned home voluntarily, most with UNHCR support. Others have been integrated where they are: Tanzania, for example, has granted citizenship to 162,000 of the so-called "1972 Burundians."
Burundi is itself a refugee host country with some 41,000 Congolese refugees in four camps and in urban areas. Two thousand of these have requested UNHCR's help in returning to DRC this year and the refugee agency hopes to begin repatriations on October 20. This two-way voluntary repatriation programme - Burundians in one direction, Congolese in the other - has come about as a result of last December's tripartite agreement between UNHCR, Burundi and the DRC.
By Celine Schmitt in Mutumbizi transit centre, Burundi