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UNHCR help critical for Burundian returnees


UNHCR help critical for Burundian returnees

Burundian refugees returning home after more than three decades rely on UNHCR for solutions to property conflicts, human rights abuses and help with home reconstruction. One returnee’s story.
15 June 2009
Yared and his 18-year-old daughter in front of their property.

RUMONGE, Burundi, June 15 (UNHCR) - For more than thirty years, Yared Karadongeye dreamed about returning to his native Burundi. But when he finally managed to go home from neighbouring Tanzania late last year, the circumstances were different from those he had imagined.

"I wonder where I would be today had I not received help from UNHCR," the 65-year-old explained recently at his newly-built home outside the small town of Rumonge in southern Burundi. He shrugged. "Maybe I wouldn't be alive."

Yared's story of exile and return began in 1972, when a military campaign triggered a wave of ethnic killings across the south of his small central African nation. "We left when we heard that a group of people were looking for us. They wanted to take us to a nearby bridge, to be killed like all the others," he recalled.

He vividly remembers running past bodies lying in the streets before hiding in a forest. Yared and his family managed to reach the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where they paid their last Burundian francs for a boat ride south to Tanzania.

In Tanzania, the family set up a home in one of three major UNHCR-supported settlements. They stayed there, with assistance from the refugee agency, until the mid-1980s. Later, Yared's family managed to support themselves by cultivating a small plot of land.

During his years in exile, Yared could not get over one thing: "People always called us 'the refugees,' This made me feel bad, and this made all the difference," he said. Many refugees claimed that their status restricted their freedom of movement. "It was the refugee label that hurt me," said Yared. Despite the memories of what drove him from Burundi, he longed to return home.

About a decade ago, security began to improve in Burundi and in 2008, Yared, now a widower, took advantage of a UNHCR assistance programme to go home with two adult children, including his 18-year-old daughter who lives with him still.

"UNHCR organized a truck to transport us all the way home: this was a great help," he explained. It took two days to make the journey. Many refugees travelled with livestock as well. Back in Burundi, UNHCR provided mosquito nets to protect against malaria, which is endemic along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, and plastic sheeting to provide shelter from the rain.

"When we arrived home, somebody else had occupied my family's land. This man had not even built a house there, because he was still living on another plot." Yared went to see Burundi's National Land and Property Commission, a government body which has been set up with the help of UNHCR and the UN Peacebuilding Fund. Soon he received a certificate allowing him to recover his land.

But instead of getting his land back, Yared soon found himself face-to-face with police officers who took him away and locked him up. "I showed them the documents I had, but they did not care. I think they had received a bribe from the occupant of my land", Yared alleged.

Jean Buregeya, a local monitor of returnees, heard of the case and secured his release. "I talked to the police commissioner and quickly saw that the case was unfounded," said Buregeya, who works with the local Ligue Iteka organization under a UNHCR-funded monitoring project. "I could leave with Yared."

Yared was particularly grateful to hear that both he and his son's family would receive iron sheeting and other building materials from a UNHCR emergency shelter programme. Both houses are standing now next to a small piece of land where the two families have planted manioc. Yared's son recently opened a small café nearby.

"To have a solid house and to be at home, this makes the biggest difference to me that I can think of. When I settled again here, I felt peace and happiness. Despite of all that I have lived and seen - I was finally home."

Since 2002, some 490,000 Burundians have returned home with UNHCR help. UNHCR-funded returnee monitors visited more than 14,000 families last year, often intervening to ensure the protection and fair treatment of the returnees.

Two UNHCR non-governmental partners and Burundi's National Land and Property Commission have contributed to the peaceful resolution of several thousand land conflicts. And under its shelter programme, UNHCR has provided nearly 90,000 families with building materials.

By Andreas Kirchhof in Rumonge, Burundi