Burundians restart their lives with empty soda bottles, goats in scarves

News Stories, 29 November 2012

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
Pastor Prime Habonimana feeding his prize bull at Mabanda transit centre.

MABANDA TRANSIT CENTRE, Burundi, November 29 (UNHCR) When he had to leave Mtabila Refugee Camp in Tanzania to come home to Burundi, eight-year-old Peregi Nyandwi brought his most prized possessions with him: his three pet rabbits.

Now sitting in the UNHCR transit centre close to the border, headed for his village, he's strumming a home-made guitar, the most treasured item that his 19-year-old brother brought along. Peregi takes a break from music making to reach into a green plastic basket to show off one of the rabbits, holding the squirming animal by the scruff of the neck.

What the refugee returnees given until the end of the year to come back to their home country chose to bring with them says a lot about how they plan to restart their lives in Burundi.

"They take everything they own, especially the things that are most valuable to them," says Maguelone Arsac, who has been helping new arrivals since UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and other partners started helping them return in late October.

The UNHCR community services officer was struck one day by the number of returnees disembarking with hamsters in cages. Unlike Peregi's pet rabbits, the rodents were food. Another day, many were carrying pineapples.

"They give us energy," explains one man, with a family of six in tow. "We didn't know the process and we didn't know whether we would get anything to eat," so they brought their own pineapples. To his relief, all the returnees got not only a hot meal, but also medical treatment if needed, as well as a night's rest before UNHCR transported them to their home villages.

Children bring footballs made from plastic bags bound with twine, and get off buses with the glass bulbs of hurricane lamps strung around their necks like giant necklaces. Mothers bring broken plastic basins battered but still serviceable. One man carefully balances two long fluorescent light bulbs.

Plastic cases full of empty soft-drink bottles come along as capital for future small businesses. Returnees bring any furniture they own sometimes made of old vegetable oil tins and even parts of their dismantled houses from the refugee camp.

Explaining why he brought back a battered set of wooden doors, 43-year-old Athanase Nduwimana, returning with his wife and seven children, explains: "when I arrive at my area, I will build a small house for a separate kitchen and I will use these for the doors."

Perhaps most precious to people who will farm back in Burundi are their animals. Cows and pigs come back with the returnees in separate trucks as do goats wearing colorful scarves so that their owners can tell them apart.

A middle-aged Christian pastor, Prime Habonimana, proudly brought home his large black bull, the legacy of a 2004 UNHCR programme in Tanzania that gave cows to refugees on the condition that they pass on the first calf to other refugees.

"It has a big value," he explains, taking a break from feeding the bull, "because where I was, there were many cows and if anyone wanted to mate them, they had to pay me 20,000 Tanzanian shillings (about US$12 a huge sum for a refugee)." He named the bull Ziada, a Kiswahili word meaning "additional," because he viewed the bull as "something extra, a blessing" he had received from the UNHCR programme.

Meanwhile, still waiting for his older brother to pick up the family's UNHCR-issued rations, Peregi continues to strum the guitar, made from a recycled vegetable oil tin from refugee camp rations.

He sings a hymn of supplication whose words, translated from Kirundi, go something like this: "We pray to God to help the people all the time." It is, he reckons, the right song for this time and place.

By Kitty McKinsey in Mabanda Transit Centre, Burundi




Finding a Home on Ancestral Land

Somali Bantu refugees gaining citizenship in Tanzania

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Since the end of October more than 26,000 Burundian former refugees have been assisted by UNHCR and its partners to return home from the Mtabila camp in northwest Tanzania. The operation is organized with the Government of Tanzania to help some 35,500 Burundian former refugees go back to Burundi by the end of 2012, when the Mtabila camp officially closes.

Refugee status for most Burundians in Tanzania formally ended in August following individual interviews to assess remaining protection needs. A total of 2,715 people will continue to be hosted as refugees in Tanzania, while the rest, the last of a population of refugees who left Burundi some 20 years ago, must return home. This is not an easy move after having spent most of your life -- and sometimes all of it -- in exile.

While awaiting their turn to join one of the daily convoys to bring them home, Burundian former refugees are preparing themselves for a fresh start…

A fresh start; Burundian former refugees begin a new chapter in their lives

Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

The UN refugee agency has successfully completed the voluntary repatriation of 38 Tanzanian refugees from Zanzibar who had been residing in the Somalia capital, Mogadishu, for more than a decade. The group, comprising 12 families, was flown on two special UNHCR-chartered flights from Mogadishu to Zanzibar on July 6, 2012. From there, seven families were accompanied back to their home villages on Pemba Island, while five families opted to remain and restart their lives on the main Zanzibar island of Unguja. The heads of households were young men when they left Zanzibar in January 2001, fleeing riots and violence following the October 2000 elections there. They were among 2,000 refugees who fled from the Tanzanian island of Pemba. The remainder of the Tanzanian refugee community in Mogadishu, about 70 people, will wait and see how the situation unfolds for those who went back before making a final decision on their return.

Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Africa is the continent most affected by the tragedy of forced displacement. While millions of refugees were able to return to Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and South Sudan over the last 15 years, the numbers of internally displaced people continued to grow. At the beginning of 2009, in addition to some 2.3 million refugees, an estimated 11.6 million people were internally displaced by conflict in Africa.

To address forced displacement on the continent, the African Union is organizing a special summit on refugees, returnees and internally displaced people from October 19-23 in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Heads of state and government will look at the challenges and at ways to find solutions to forced displacement. They are also expected to adopt a Convention for the protection and assistance of internally displaced people (IDP) in Africa, which would be the first legally binding instrument on internal displacement with a continental scope. This photo gallery looks at some of the forcibly displaced around Africa, many of whom are helped by UNHCR.

Photo Gallery: The Challenge of Forced Displacement in Africa

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Fleeing Burundi, Refugees Seek Safety

He used to fix broken bicycles in Burundi, but as political troubles and killings mounted Nestor Kamza decided to flee. In search of safety he and his family walked non-stop for 24-hours until they reached Tanzania. His family is among more than 100,000 people who have fled from political violence in Burundi and arrived in the Nyarugusu camp which has almost tripled in size. To alleviate overcrowding in the camp, UNHCR and its partners have planned to open three new camps and have started moving tens of thousands of Burundian refugees to a new, less congested, home
Tanzania: Setting Sail to SafetyPlay video

Tanzania: Setting Sail to Safety

More than 60,000 Burundian refugees have arrived in Tanzania since the beginning of May. On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, hundreds board a ferry to Kigoma, Tanzania, before continuing to Nyaragusu camp.
Rwanda: Flight from BurundiPlay video

Rwanda: Flight from Burundi

In recent weeks, the number of Burundian refugees crossing into Rwanda has increased significantly. According to the Government of Rwanda, since the beginning of April, 25,004 Burundians, mostly women and children, have fled to Rwanda. Many said they had experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the upcoming elections.