After living abroad as refugees for years – in some cases decades – many of the half-million people who have returned to Burundi since 2002 are having to cope with a severe shortage of one of the tiny country’s most precious commodities: land.
“The issue of access and entitlement to arable land on which to undertake subsistence farming and of securing shelter [for the returnees] ... are among the most acute hurdles which continue to confront returnees," Hugues van Brabandt, associate external affairs officer for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, told IRIN.
He added that those returning home – especially those who fled in 1972 after a rebellion prompted mass killings of Hutus – often found that the state had taken over their property.
"State-occupied land is sometimes used for exploitation of palm oil, sugar or other more lucrative crops, making land claims more intractable," he said.
Célestin Sindibutume, the general manager in charge of repatriation, resettlement and reinsertion of IDPs and refugees in the Ministry of National Solidarity, Human Rights and Gender, said the landless returnees were “the most vulnerable and difficult to reintegrate".
More than 20,000 disputes over land have been registered by the National Commission on Land and Other Properties, of which some 13,000 had been resolved, often amicably.
Manassé Havyarimana, chairman of the Bujumbura section of the commission, said his team faced the difficult task of reconciling the law and fairness.
“We have, on the one hand, the law protecting the occupant after 15 years of regular occupation if the property was acquired in a legal way, or 30 years of regular occupation whichever way the occupant got it," Havyarimana said.
"On the other, we have a returnee who could not come to claim ownership of his property because his absence was not voluntary. You have to take the two into account."
According to Havyarimana, a compensation fund is vital.
"Some houses were sold by the government, how you can tell the occupant to evacuate them?" he said. "The compensation fund will allow Burundians to get reconciled."
Such a fund would certainly help the likes of Pascal Mugabonihera, 70, a former refugee who returned to Burundi with his four children in September 2009.
Mugabonihera said he found private houses built on his cassava field on the border of Ntahangwa River in Bujumbura.
Photo: Judith Basutama/IRIN
|A group of returnees aboard a UNHCR lorry. According to a UNHCR official, long periods of exile exposes returnees to social dislocation|
"I was told it was government property; there is no way to get the field back," he said. "Another plot I owned is now occupied by priests. They have refused to tell me who they bought it from. I have no evidence for it but I am sure there are traces at the land registry agency, but I know there is no hope.
"I have been in the country for two years now but I have no right to my properties, yet when I was repatriated, I was told I would live in my own houses."
Mugabonihera had counted on a compound he had in Nyakabiga suburb in Bujumbura but the occupants refused to leave, saying it was theirs as they had lived there for so long.
Despite the commission ruling that the plot be restituted to Mugabonihera, he has still to recover it.
The returnees have been encouraged to form associations which would help them initiate income-generating projects.
"For those associations, the ministry gives them a reintegration kit; it might be cash to start a project, and it might be a mill, a welding machine depending on the beneficiaries’ potential," Sindibutume said.
The government and its partners have also initiated integrated rural villages to settle landless returnees and other vulnerable people.
According to UNHCR, eight such villages have been constructed since 2008.
As Burundi moves from a post-conflict phase to a development phase, many facilities such as health, sanitation, education and road facilities have not kept up and remain in deplorable conditions.
Van Brabandt said multilateral donor support to communal development plans, "which is still low, needs to be improved in almost all areas of return".
He said the long periods of exile also exposed refugees to social dislocation. Some lost family members. In addition, some - especially returnees born in exile - are "culturally and linguistically alienated and this also complicates their reintegration.
“The chronically ill, persons with disabilities, hearing, speech and sight impediments; single elderly persons as well as survivors of gender-based violence, belong to categories at particular risk and whose needs are yet to be properly addressed through a comprehensive national policy and/or legal framework,” Van Brabandt said.