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Small Group of Botswana Bushmen Return to Ancestral Home

In Botswana, several dozen San, or Bushmen, have returned to their ancestral homeland after a court ruled that they were wrongly evicted by the government. The government says it will respect the court's decision, but activists say the government is not making it easy for the Bushmen to go home. Correspondent Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.

About 40 San Bushmen were allowed to return Sunday to their traditional home in what is now a reserve in the central Kalahari Desert.

Kali Mercier, a spokesperson for the Survival International group, which supports the Bushmen's case, says their return was not without problems.

"They [the Bushmen] were accompanied from the resettlement camp to the gate [of the reserve] by a huge number of police and wildlife guards," she said. "Before they left they were told that they should remain behind because they should expect a visit by the president of Botswana next Thursday, but they said they were not prepared to do that, so they set off anyway."

She says about 10 Bushmen and nine of their children were allowed to enter the reserve without problem. But two dozen others were given only temporary passes and told they must leave after three days.

Several thousand Bushmen in the central Kalahari were evicted in 2002 to make way for a wildlife sanctuary.

But 244 of their leaders protested in a lawsuit, and one month ago a Botswana high court ruled that their removal was unconstitutional.

Botswana Deputy Attorney-General Abraham Ke'etshabe says the government is implementing the decision of the court.

"The court said the 189 applicants can go back and we have as a government taken it upon ourselves that we will implement that decision," he said.

A group of Bushmen two weeks ago tried to return, but were told that only the people whose names appeared on the court ruling could enter.

Mercier of Survival International says this is an overly narrow interpretation of the court ruling.

She said, "The judgment said that the Bushmen had a constitutional right to be on the land. That means that everyone who was evicted in 2002 legally should have the right to go back. So I think the problem is here is the government's being badly advised legally."

Ke-etshabe of the Attorney-General's office disagrees.

"The reports that we hear have really not been communicated to us and we do not know where that information comes from," he said. "What we do know is that government is willing and has issued a statement that these people be allowed to go back. I think anything to the contrary is not accurate."

The government began relocating Bushmen from the central Kalahari in 1997, saying it was setting the land aside as a protected area for wildlife and the development of tourism.

The area is also known to hold sizable deposits of diamonds. Bushmen who stayed, despite the eviction order, say they have seen mining companies prospecting in the area.