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BURUNDI: Church plans to support returning refugees

[Anglican Church of Burundi]  Optimism and the peace agreement between the FNL, an extreme Hutu rebel group, and the Government of Burundi are increasingly fueling the desire of many refugees to return to Burundi from camps in neighboring countries where they had been living for many years in order to escape the long civil wars in Burundi.

Accompanied by Bishop Eraste Bigirimana of Muyinga -- one of six dioceses in the Anglican Church of Burundi -- two members of the Provincial office staff visited a transit camp that is being established by the Red Cross and the Burundian government to receive refugees who are being sent back to Burundi from camps in Tanzania.

The camp's capacity is 120 people. Security is provided by the police and the government is supplying food. Most of the people passing through are women and children. People should stay at the camp for two days but many had been there for several weeks or months waiting for someone to come from their commune to repatriate them so that they can begin the long road back to reintegration into their communities and families.

At the time of the visit the perimeter fence was still under reconstruction. Dormitory tents, toilets, and a shaded kitchen area were already in place. Straw covered the ground inside the dormitory tents -- rush mats were provided for sleeping. The standard of hygiene appeared to be good. The long-drop toilets were properly screened, affording some privacy.

There were 46 people there -- 24 children, 15 women and seven men. The children were playing, as children do, in the blistering heat, running barefoot over the dry, dusty ground that hints once more of impending drought. Signs of malnourishment and other illnesses were evident. The few possessions brought with them could be seen bundled up against the side of the tents. Some of the refugees returned with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

Apart from cooking food -- cooked in a pot balanced on three stones with charcoal set between them -- and nursing babies, there appeared to be little else to do but wait.

One woman told her story. She had lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania for three years. Without warning she was called by the police to the authorities. She went with her husband and children. She was told to get onto a lorry. She asked to go back and get her possessions but was forced to proceed. The lorry left immediately and transported her to the Red Cross transit camp just inside Burundi. Now she found herself with only the clothes she was wearing -- with no cooking pot, blanket or mattress, only straw and a rush mat to rest on inside a large dormitory tent with many other families. She said that she was one of the fortunate ones. Others had been separated from family members and knew nothing of their whereabouts.

According to the Red Cross Administrator the main problem that they face is that, because it is a transit camp, the World Food Programme does not distribute food. Although the Government provides food, no cooking pots are available except those brought by returnees.

Many challenges face the authorities in Burundi. The refugees have to be registered. They need support to reach and be reintegrated into families and communities. Some have long distances to walk -- anything from 4 to 30 kilometers -- carrying any possessions they have been able to bring back with them. There are the immediate needs of food, water, and shelter -- especially with the rainy season about to start.

Medical services in the country are already stretched and many of the returnees need medical attention. The children need to be in school but most classrooms are already packed beyond capacity with an acute shortage of teaching staff and resources. Many return to find their homes destroyed and their land sold or occupied by others. Ensuing disputes over land rights can be difficult and costly -- a serious issue for people who are mostly subsistence farmers. On reaching their home areas they may be forced to stay with relatives and friends.

The Diocese of Muyinga, along with other dioceses, is looking at ways it can support and welcome returnees. It is a big challenge for the Anglican Church of Burundi as not only practical assistance is needed but also emotional and spiritual help, especially as the returnees go through the process of repatriation and reintegration.