Feature: Hope and despair for uprooted Burundians
NGARA, Tanzania (UNHCR) - Ephrazia Furaha, a refugee from the civil war in Burundi, lounges against a sack of cassava flour she is trying to sell in the market in the Lukole refugee camp here in north-western Tanzania, listening to a portable radio.
"I listen to hear if Burundi is developing further towards peace," the 18-year-old woman explains. "But I haven't heard any good news on peace yet."
Like many of the 350,000 Burundian refugees now living in camps in Tanzania, Furaha is waiting for word that it is safe to go back home. These days, the news is mixed. Despite a cease-fire agreement signed last December, fighting continues between the Burundian army and rebels, sending new refugees fleeing into Tanzania from southern Burundi every week. At the same time, a steady flow of refugees are voluntarily returning home - with the help of the UN refugee agency - to regions in the north of Burundi.
"We have seen the numbers going up in terms of spontaneous returns, which means people are feeling more optimistic about the security situation," says Stefano Severe, UNHCR Representative in Burundi. "There is increased interest in returning."
(Refugees who return "spontaneously" receive limited assistance from UNHCR - basic domestic supplies for setting up a new home, but no food or transportation - whereas refugees who return on UNHCR-organised convoys receive full assistance consisting of three months' food supply and basic domestic items such as mats, jerry cans, blankets and kitchen sets.)
Tanzania, Burundi and UNHCR agreed in late February to open three more exit and entry points in Burundi's south-eastern provinces to help facilitate repatriation, but these have not yet been opened.
"If the situation here [in Burundi] changes and different elements of the cease-fire are implemented - observers, peace-keeping forces - then you could see an increase of spontaneous returns regardless of whether the exit points are opened," says Severe.
Jeanine Buyoya, an 18-year-old refugee, went back from Lukole camp to Muyinga in the north of Burundi with her 20-year-old brother recently, after living in Tanzania for 10 years. They were the last of their family to take advantage of UNHCR's help in going home and said they were encouraged by reports from their parents that "they are in a safe place and it's safe for us to go home now."
Ezekiel Mvuyekure, a 29-year-old refugee lining up to board a UNHCR truck from Lukole to northern Burundi, said "five members of my family have already repatriated and we want to follow them. But I'm going to the north. I would not go to the south. It's not safe there."
A 17-year-old boy who recently fled Bitare near Mutaho commune in central Burundi gave a first-hand account of how dangerous it is there: "The army is killing local civilians, and after it kills, the CNDD [Conseil National pour la Defense de la Democratie] rebels go through the village and take all the cattle and poultry. Either way it's a no-win situation."
The boy adds at UNHCR's Mtendeli reception centre in western Tanzania, "I don't know how long we will have to stay here. From the bottom of my heart, I want to go back when the situation cools down. But I don't know when that will be."
Agnes Kanyambo, a 21-year-old woman, fled from eastern Ruyigi province recently. "We couldn't live in our own homes because of the fighting and because the soldiers were coming and were stealing and raping," she explains as she waits to be registered as a refugee at Mtendeli. "Everyone built temporary shelters in the forest. Now the soldiers - I don't know who they were, government or CNDD - did a 'sweep' and burned down all the temporary shelters."
Kanyambo had fled once before, in 2000, but she took a chance and went home in August last year. Now she is pessimistic about the chances for peace in her homeland. "I have no hope in the peace process," she says. "Regardless of how long they sit and talk, there will never be peace.
"I have no hope of ever going back. I will be a refugee for the rest of my life." Then she looks at the three-year-old son she is holding on her hip and adds softly, "I hope maybe one day he will see Burundi."
By Kitty McKinsey
UNHCR Regional Office in Nairobi