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Burundi Refugees Returning Home From Tanzania

Burundians who fled to neighboring Tanzania to escape the civil wars of the 1970's and 1990's are now returning home in large numbers. This is mostly because camps are being closed and the two governments and the United Nations decided last year that Burundi is now stable enough to receive the refugees. But many come back to an uncertain future in a country with limited resources. Cathy Majtenyi visited a reception center near the Burundi-Tanzania border and has this report.

A convoy of 127 families crosses the border into Burundi from Tanzania, heading to the Mugano Transit Center.

There, staff of the United Nations' refugee agency and aid groups register the returnees, create national identity cards for them, and give them blankets, buckets, food, and other supplies to help them in their new life.

Maria Jeanette Mpawenimana arrived the previous day. She was a small child when she and her family fled the 1993 civil war in which 300,000 people were killed and up to one million displaced.

The 19-year-old is now back in Burundi with her own baby, eager to start a new life. "Now I am back home. I can move freely," she says. "In the camp it was sometimes forbidden to go out. Now I can work for myself and my family."

The returnees have been steadily streaming into Burundi since the beginning of the year. Some 8,000 arrived in March alone, and UN officials estimate 90,000 will return home by the end of the year.

Bo Schack, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Burundi, says the time is right for Burundians to return. "There is a peace agreement. There is a new government. There is probably the most stable government in Burundi that there ever has been since independence in the early 1960s," said Schack.

But while the central African country has achieved relative stability, in other ways it may be unprepared to absorb the increasing number of people.

Burundi has one of the highest population densities in Africa, and land in this tiny nation is becoming scarcer.

In the town of Giteranyi near the transit center, up to 25 returnees a week seek legal mediation and advice from lawyers about the difficulties they are encountering in their new lives.

Lawyer Dieudonne Ndayishimiye says land disputes are by far the biggest obstacle the returnees face. He says families often return to find their land has been sold.

Poverty and a lack of resources also are also huge obstacles. The country ranked 167th among 177 countries in the UNDP's 2007-2008 Human Development Index.

Under the U.N. refugee agency repatriation program, each returning family receives six months of food rations and basic supplies. Some families are eligible to get materials to help them build houses, and each returnee also receives a cash grant of about $45.

But the UN refugee agency's Bo Schack concedes that this assistance may not be enough, "If we are discussing something like 90,000 people that would return this year, that would definitely be a major strain on all kinds of resources, first of all on the government's own capacity linked to access to health and getting the children in school, both primary and secondary," he said.

The government acknowledges the problems facing returnees amidst limited resources. An official tells VOA a land commission was set up last year to help resettle returnees and villages are being constructed to house them.

Despite the odds, the returnees are determined to make a new life in their old country, saying that it is in Burundi where they feel truly free.