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Refugee 'special envoy' checks out situation back home in Burundi


Refugee 'special envoy' checks out situation back home in Burundi

Thirty-three years after fleeing war in Burundi, Joyce Uwimana is making a brief trip home - one of ten refugees chosen as "special envoys" by thousands of her compatriots in Tanzania who are now eagerly awaiting her appraisal of what life is like in their homeland.
27 October 2005
Joyce and her sister-in-law contemplate where Joyce's family can build a house when they return from Tanzania.

KAYANZA, Burundi, October 27 (UNHCR) - Joyce Uwimana has been scanning the unfolding hills of Burundi for hours in vain, when suddenly she points to a house with a blue door, half hidden by the surrounding greenery. "It's there," she says, her voice trembling with excitement. Grabbing the blue suitcase packed with clothes she brought for her relatives, she jumps out of the car and starts up the winding path leading to the house.

Joyce was 16 when she fled the ethnic violence that was tearing Burundi apart in 1972. Today, after 33 years in exile, first in Rwanda then in Tanzania, Joyce is heading home.

Time is short on this first visit back home, and she is entrusted with an important mission: she must identify a suitable place to build a house where she can live with her husband and their fourteen children and grandchildren when they finally come back home for good. She must also be the eyes and ears for thousands of other Burundian refugees in Tanzania.

In a few days' time, Joyce will return to the Tanzanian camp where she has been staying with her family since 1994. As the Vice-President of the Refugee Committee of Lukole A camp, she was chosen, along with nine other refugees, as a 'special envoy' by thousands of her compatriots in Tanzania who are now eagerly awaiting her return for news of what life is like in their homeland.

The three-day visit was organized by the UN refugee agency on behalf of Burundian refugees originating from Karuzi and Kayanza provinces who are currently living in Tanzanian refugee camps. "The idea behind these 'go-and-see visits' is to help refugees make an informed choice about repatriation," UNHCR Repatriation Officer Katja Saha explains. "We felt it was necessary to give Burundian refugees the chance to get first-hand information on the post-election situation in Burundi."

The investiture of former Hutu rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza as President in August marked the end of Burundi's transitional process. The polls were the last major step towards the restoration of democracy and peace following a civil war that has killed 300,000 people since 1993, and led 700,000 Burundians to flee to neighbouring countries, or become displaced within their own country. Today, all rebel groups except one - the Front National de Libération - have signed ceasefires.

"Refugees can come home," Sylvestre Ndayizeye, the governor of Karuzi province in central Burundi, tells the visiting group. "The war is over. Yes, there are bandits, there are people with scores to settle - but such things happen everywhere in the world. The conflict is over." Local and national authorities, as well as UNHCR, are around to help them return home and start their lives again, he continues.

Security is one of the most important issues for the refugees, as the group raises its concerns about safety, demobilization and the collection of small arms, as well as assistance to returnees, health issues and education opportunities. They diligently take note of the governor's replies, just as they wrote down the price of rice, beans and flour when they visited the local market. Gerald Ndabimala, a UNHCR Field Officer accompanying the refugees from Tanzania, gave them a notebook before they left the camps. "I told them to inquire about anything they considered important - like security, obviously, but also prices in the market - and to write the answers down."

Refugees are already reasonably well aware of the conditions in Burundi: they listen to Burundian radio stations, have set up their own radio in the camps, and once in a while receive mail from their relatives. As Joyce makes her way to the house with the blue door, she expects to embrace her brother and his wife, and to meet their children for the first time. She received a letter from them less than two months ago.

Joyce's nephews and sister-in-law are here to welcome her, but she will never see her brother again. He died earlier in the week, only three days before being reunited with the sister he had not seen for more than a decade. Despite this unexpected sad news, Joyce and her sister-in-law are soon making plans for the future - another house can be built on the land the family owns, they both agree.

But Joyce does not feel entirely reassured. Like all Burundian refugees, she is aware that reclaiming land is a potential source of conflict in their overpopulated country. "I am afraid that when we come back for good, it is not going to be that simple to have a place to build a house, regardless of what was promised now," she says.

Still, her message to her fellow refugees when she gets back to the camp will be that most of the country is now peaceful and that things have changed: "Hutus and Tutsis are working together to govern Burundi," she says, "but the country is poor. People are skinny!" Nevertheless, she has made up her mind to return. "I will be heading home. My children need to discover their country," she says.

She will add her name to the lists of those waiting to be repatriated by UNHCR from Tanzania, following in the footsteps of over 58,000 Burundian refugees since the start of the year. Upon return, she will receive food for three months and some vital goods like plastic sheeting, blankets and pots. A total of 284,489 Burundian refugees have already returned from Tanzania since 2002. However, more than 400,000 other Burundian refugees have still to follow suit.

By Catherine-Lune Grayson in Kayanza, Burundi