BURUNDI: East, West, home is best

Returnees hold a national flag as they listen to a welcome speech at the Gatumba border post/Photo: Judith Batusama/IRIN

Twice exiled from his country, Deo Butoyi was among the first 244 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who voluntarily returned to Burundi in a programme organized by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that began on 5 October.

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“I hope the government will assist us to find a place to live,” he said upon arrival at his home village of Kinama, near the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. “I was promised iron sheets and a house frame, but getting bricks will be a challenge as it requires means.”

Unlike most of the returnees who were farmers, Butoyi, who returned with nine children, was a trained teacher. But during exile, he failed to get a teaching job in Kiliba, South Kivu province, and ended up farming too.

Together with hundreds of thousands of his compatriots, Butoyi first fled Burundi in 1972, when between 100,000 and 200,000 people were killed amid a Hutu rebellion against the ruling minority Tutsi and subsequent wide-scale reprisals against Hutus. Butoyi returned home in the 1990s, but fled again when civil war broke out following the 1993 assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye.

“I escaped death twice. Up to 2005, the situation was tense [and] insecurity was still there. There are still some differences among political leaders [but] I think there is no reason to fear again,” he said.

Many things are new to the returnees. “Bujumbura looks new,” Butoyi’s wife, Nahimana Amida, said. “They have built many houses even at Kinama [a poor suburb north of Bujumbura]. It was not like this when we left.”

Marie Nugwaha, who fled Kinama after her husband was killed in 1972, said: “I just need a place to build a house and a plot of land. I am used to digging, I can earn a living.”

Stephanie Tabu, 50, who was accompanied by her youngest child and four grandchildren, had also never been back to Burundi since 1972. “It is because the authorities came looking for us that I have [returned],” she said. “The Congolese kept telling us, ‘you Burundians go to back to your country’. It was upsetting for us.”

Back on lorries

The returnees arrived through Gatumba border point aboard UNHCR lorries, and were driven to Mutimbuzi transit site in Bujumbura Rural, where they were screened and given return packages. Butoyi and his family were then taken to Kinama where his relatives live. He plans to reapply for a teaching job.

Deo Butoyi's wife prepares a meal at Kinama after repatriation/Photo: IRIN

UNHCR associate external relations officer Hughes van Brandt said convoys from DRC would be organized every Tuesday until December when 5,000 are expected to have returned. At least 10,000 of 15,000 Burundian refugees in DRC, he added, had expressed a desire to return home.

According to UNHCR, the latest returnees are from Bubanza, Bujumbura rural, Cibitoke Provinces in the west, and Bururi in the south. In the past six years, more than half a million Burundian refugees have returned home voluntarily. Others have been integrated where they were, including 162,000 who were granted citizenship in Tanzania.

There are also 40,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in Burundi. UNHCR plans to repatriate 2,000 to DRC this year, Van Brandt told IRIN.

Lingering fears

Apart from anxiety over reintegration, the returnees were concerned over political developments in Burundi, which has seen key opposition leaders return to exile.

“The fact that so many political leaders are going into exile does not reassure us,” Butoyi told IRIN. “We had expressed this concern while in Congo, but we were [accused of meddling in politics]. But I believe even a refugee has the right to follow closely the life of his country.”

At least three opposition leaders fled Burundi amid a government crackdown on the opposition and internal critics following disputed elections. President Pierre Nkurunziza was elected unopposed in the 28 July poll.

Since then, mysterious killings have been reported, prompting observers to warn that such acts will spread fear among a population that still has fresh memories of civil war. Authorities have, however, downplayed talk of renewed armed insurrection and blamed some of the deaths on bandits.

“Burundi is at a dangerous crossroads and clearly ill-intentioned people on both sides of the political divide are seeking to exploit recent tensions,” Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in early July.

Burundi experienced years of brutal conflict, which ended in August 2000 when parties to the civil war signed a peace and reconciliation agreement. The last active Hutu rebel group laid down arms five years later, but its leader Agathon Rwasa has fled the country again.

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*This story was amended on 7 October to correct the historical circumstances surrounding Butoyis’s departure from Burundi.

Theme(s): Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]