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Burundian refugees return through new border crossing in south

Burundian refugees return through new border crossing in south

The UN refugee agency has started twice-weekly convoys from Tanzania's camps to southern Burundi via a new border crossing at Mugina. It conducted a test run on Tuesday to ensure that all the procedures are in place for repatriation before the crossing is officially opened in late June.
2 June 2004
Burundian refugees in Tanzania's Mtabila camp boarding the first test convoy home through the southern Mugina border crossing.

MAKAMBA, Burundi, June 2 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has started twice-weekly convoys through its first border crossing between Tanzania and southern Burundi as part of efforts to expand the repatriation of Burundian refugees in the region.

The first convoy of three UNHCR trucks left Tanzania's Mtabila camp with 146 Burundian refugees on Tuesday, crossing the border at Mugina and arriving hours later at Mabanda transit centre in southern Burundi's Makamba province. They were accompanied by Tanzanian Home Affairs Representative Cochola Epihanie, and UNHCR protection officer in Kasulu, Tanzania, Virgile Houdegbe.

"God is great, God is great," the returnees sang as they alighted from the trucks, happy to return home after more than 10 years. The joy was overwhelming for the many children who were born in exile and were setting foot on Burundian soil for the first time.

Among the returnees was Karoli Bambonye, an elderly man who fled in 1993. He has now come back with his wife and four orphans he is taking care of.

"There was no way I could miss this golden opportunity," said Bambonye, who could hardly stand because of his age. "I know that my house has been destroyed but I still have land in my village at Nyamitari. I am ready to stay in a shelter covered with plastic sheeting before I can rebuild my home, rather than staying at my neighbours' because when you stay longer, they get tired of you."

Nkeshimana Naomi, 20, and Andrew Hakizimana, 24, returned with their two children. They hope they can celebrate their wedding in their homeland, surrounded by the relatives and the friends they left in Burundi.

"We don't care that we don't have a house at Muyange where we are going to," said Naomi. Her husband added with joy in his eyes, "The major thing is that we are at home at last. This is a new start, we are young and full of energy, we believe in a better life in Burundi."

Ciza Didace, the Counsellor of the Governor of Makamba, welcomed Tuesday's returnees and told them that they would have to familiarise themselves anew with Burundian culture. He promised that the government of Burundi will do everything possible to assist their reintegration.

Joseph Nahimana, who represented the Minister of the Reinsertion and Reintegration of Returnees and Displaced People, added that the government will need their help to reconstruct the country. Both speakers extended their gratitude to UNHCR and the government of Tanzania for the hospitality and assistance to Burundian refugees.

Tanzanian representative Epihanie returned the thanks, and provided useful advice to the returnees on resuming life in the community.

UNHCR Deputy Representative in Burundi Carlos Zaccagnini told the returnees, "This is an important moment for you. This is the end of your refugee status, and your children, who I can see are numerous, are going to integrate in schools in Burundi."

The returnees were registered upon arrival and given temporary identity cards. They also received return packages with three months' supply of food and assistance items like plastic sheeting and kitchen sets. They were treated to a meal prepared by the "Communauté des Eglises de Pentecôte du Burundi" before boarding the trucks that brought them back to their communes of origin.

Tuesday's convoy was a test run to ensure that all the procedures are in place and running smoothly for returns through the new Mugina crossing point. Another 330 people are scheduled on Thursday from Mtabila camp, which hosts some 61,830 Burundian refugees.

The new crossing point - the fourth between Tanzania and Burundi, three of which are in the north and east - was supposed to have opened in April. But this was delayed because of heavy rain and road repairs that were needed on the Tanzania side. The repairs are now complete and involved grading the road to make it more level, work to improve the water drainage from the roads and improvements to the road surface which was previously muddy and difficult for trucks and buses to navigate.

More than 44,000 Burundian refugees have returned from Tanzania's camps with UNHCR assistance so far this year. In all, some 180,000 have gone back to Burundi since the agency started facilitating returns in 2002.