Nairobi/Brussels, 7 October 2003: While everyone is hoping for a permanent suspension of hostilities in Burundi, too little consideration is being given to what will happen when peace is reached and over one million uprooted Burundians rush home. The lack of planning for the eventual mass return of refugees and displaced persons, and the land questions it raises, risk destabilising any transition to peace right from the outset.
The International Crisis Group is publishing a series of reports on the problems of repatriation for Burundi; the first report, Burundi’s Refugees: Defusing the Land Time-bomb,* emphasises how both the transitional government and the international community have thus far given too little attention to this issue, which is essential for lasting peace in the region.
"A final cease-fire agreement, however elusive it might seem today, carries the risk that a great many people who were uprooted will return to a country not yet prepared to receive them", said Dr François Grignon, Central Africa Project Director for ICG.
The main victims of the war in Burundi, refugees and displaced persons, have been waiting for the dividends of peace ever since the Arusha agreement was signed on 28 August 2000. After ten years of war, over 500,000 are estimated to be in refugee camps in western Tanzania, another 300,000 are thought to be dispersed across Tanzania, and there are approximately 281,000 permanently displaced persons in Burundi itself. Every month, another 100,000 people on average become temporarily displaced as a result of the ongoing violence. To one degree or another, all these refugees and displaced persons have been the victims of land expropriation.
The foreseeable disappointment of a large number of refugees who will be unable to recover their property upon return offers ideal political opportunities for the one rebel group still not involved in the peace process: Agathon Rwasa’s Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People, otherwise known as the National Liberation Forces (PALIPEHUTU-FNL). The transition could likewise be in serious danger if the land question becomes an election issue.
The urgent requirement in this situation is to defuse the land time-bomb through the creation of a transitional judicial process designed exclusively for land management, one that adapts traditional institutions to help implement the resettlement process. Displaced persons should be empowered either to reclaim the entirety of what has been taken from them or to obtain appropriate compensation.
"The Burundi government and the international community have thus far failed to recognise the scale of the problems they will face with the return and resettlement of refugees and displaced persons", said Dr Grignon. "The issue will not only test the administrative capacity of the transitional government and the willingness of the international community to help Burundi’s reconstruction, but will also be an ongoing source of tension during the transition process".