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Saturday, September 01, 2007

BURUNDI: Refugee To Own Homeland Returns With Fear

After more than a decade in refugee camps, Jean Kayobera was ready to come home.

He longed to see his house, although he heard it had been taken over by another family during the Central African nation's 12-year civil war. He wanted to see his family, his friends, his coffee farm _ all lost to him during the fighting.

But when he arrived in Burundi this month, he already was having second thoughts.

'I hear there is misunderstanding within the political leadership,' Kayobera told The Associated Press in the border town of Muyinga, just after he crossed into the country. 'I am worried that the country might go back at war.'

Burundi's war erupted in 1993 after paratroopers from the Tutsi ethnic minority _ which had long dominated politics and the military _ assassinated the country's first democratically elected president, a member of the Hutu majority.

Though the country has been relatively peaceful since 2005 elections brought a Hutu-dominated government to power, ethnic tensions remain and a power struggle has broken out within the government.

Kayobera is among 150,000 Burundian Hutus who are coming home after spending more than a decade in Tanzanian camps. In June, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said Burundi's war is over and the refugees must leave by December.

But many in this country of 8 million aren't so sure their homeland is safe, even after months of fragile peace.

Leaders of the rebel National Liberation Force, a Hutu faction, abruptly left peace talks with the government in July and disappeared into the bush, sparking fears of renewed fighting with government troops.

The National Liberation force, known by its French acronym FNL, was the last rebel group to sign a peace deal last year, but disagreements have dragged on over the rebels' political future and prisoner releases.

'My hope for peace in this country has only been a dream,' said Claver Bizoba, a 39-year-old father of four who works as a watchman in the capital, Bujumbura.

There are some signs of hope. A spokesman for the rebels, Pasteur Habimana, said in a radio broadcast this week that they are open to restarting talks _ 'if we receive and invitation and money' to pay for transportation.

Burundi has long been riven by tension between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, who dominated the government after independence from Belgium in 1962.

Like neighboring Rwanda, which has the same Hutu-Tutsi divide, Burundi became a slaughterhouse: More than 250,000 Burundians were killed during the country's 12-year civil war.

The returning refugees _ 7,000 came back in August alone, according to the United Nations' refugee agency _ now face an uncertain future. About 80 percent of this Maryland-sized country's citizens are subsistence farmers, and nearly half its adults are illiterate. The economy, based on coffee exports, has been ravaged.

Burundi's security minister, Evariste Ndayishimiye, said the country has taken 'the needed measures to safeguard people's protection' now that the FNL has vanished into the bush.

But many local officials acknowledge that if the rebels reassemble, the mortar and grenade attacks that were so common last year could return.

Recent grenade attacks on the homes of five prominent Burundian opposition politicians wounded two bystanders but did not injure their intended target, a police official said. It was not clear who carried out the attacks.

Zenon Ndaruvukane, Bujumbura's governor, said rebel sympathizers appear to be helping the combatants.

'Since the news surfaced that the FNL combatants had fled Bujumbura, some of their men have assembled ... some of their positions have been supplied with great quantities of food,' he said.

Jean Marie Vianney Kavumbagu, chairman of the human-rights group Iteka, said civilians are the most at risk.

'Burundians had hoped that war was over to give way to development, economic integration and national reconciliation, but they will be on the receiving end of violence once again should hostilities resume,' he said.

Still, Burundi's Human Rights Minister Immaculee Nahayo said the refugees were living in deplorable conditions in Tanzania and were forbidden to travel more than 3 miles from the camps. They should be happy to be home, she said.

'They were living like prisoners,' Nahayo said. 'Today is a happy day for them and for us.'

The U.N.'s refugee agency has offered Burundians going home a cash grant of $50 each, four months of food rations, free health care for six months and two years of free schooling for children.

'The cash they are given will help them to boost their economic hardship and a package of food to make a humble beginning,' said the UNHCR representative to Tanzania, Yacoub El Hillo.

Marie Niyondiko, a 42-year-old mother of four who fled Burundi in 1995, said anything is better than being a refugee _ even living once again in an unstable country.


'Life was unbearable in the camp,' she said. 'I am happy to be back to my home land.'

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