Displaced people from Burundi's rival Hutu and Tutsi groups are being resettled side by side under a pilot project funded by the United Nations refugee agency aimed at seeking reconciliation and binding up the wounds of decades of bloody ethnic violence in the small central African country.
“The returnees and the displaced were, very much from the beginning, willing to live together,” said Tony Garcia Carranza, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in the eastern provincial capital of Ruyigi, near the new village of Muriza. “We do not see any friction between both groups – it is really a non-issue.”
Conflict between the two groups since the early 1960s is estimated to have left more than a million dead and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes in Burundi and its northern neighbour, Rwanda.
Now UNHCR is creating Muriza as a village for 98 Burundian families, where members from both ethnic groups who sought shelter elsewhere in Burundi or in neighbouring countries, can rub shoulders in peace. The first families have moved into new mud-brick homes and the agency has distributed half-acre plots to landless refugee returnees.
“The new village is a potent example of how the scars of the past can be healed in Burundi and how reconciliation can be promoted. Hutus live next door to Tutsis, while former refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) share schools and hospitals with locals,” UNHCR said in a news release.
Two women, both in their 40s, are emblematic of the pilot project. A few years ago, Zita and Eusébie might have regarded each other as mortal enemies, but today they are learning to live together and liking it. Zita is a Tutsi, and Eusébie a Hutu. Both were uprooted from their homes, and both are widows with many children to feed, and few resources to do so.
“When you build more of these villages, it will be a good idea to integrate people from both ethnic groups,” said Eusébie, who shares hew new house with her eight children and three orphans whom she brought back with her from Nduta refugee camp in north-western Tanzania. She still has painful memories of fleeing home with her children and was not sure whether it was safe enough to return to Burundi.
But, she added: “Things are going very well between both ethnic groups. And I do not speak only for me, but for all returnees.”
Zita recalled her flight in 1993, when her old village was attacked and all the Tutsis killed. “It was only me and my family who survived and could flee. I will never forget what happened that day,” she said.
The two colourfully dressed women sat side by side on a small wooden bench, looking at the houses being built on a nearby hilltop and talking about their pasts and their common future.
UNHCR thinks Muriza can be a model for other villages, providing homes and land for returning refugees and IDPs and helping to bring together Tutsis and Hutus. In cooperation with the Government and other partners, it is examining the possibility of expanding the project.
Eusébie and Zita are clearly supporters. “When you build more of these villages, it will be a good idea to integrate people from both ethnic groups,” Eusébie said. “Those who were afraid of each other before will get used to each other.”
Since UNHCR started its voluntary repatriation operation in 2002, more than 450,000 refugees have returned to Burundi from Tanzania and other countries. Most IDPs have also gone home.