On Saturday November 24, the local police and army (who, unusually for them, were invited to this meeting) - gathered internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the Ruhororo site, about 20 km from Ngozi province in northern Burundi, to discuss strategies for strengthening security and peaceful coexistence among the inhabitants of the site and residents of the surrounding hills. About 200 of them made up of men, women, youth, the elderly and even children responded present, hungry to hear a message of peace and reassurance.
During the two-hour meeting, various issues were discussed: persistent rumors of attacks, juvenile delinquency, political manipulation, external provocations and prosecutions against alleged perpetrators, fairness in conflict resolution between farmers and pastoralists, etc. It was a debate which enabled those present to go through all issues related to peace and security in the area.
The first speaker set the scene, recalling the dramatic history of the site, which is home to more than 1,600 families since 1993. These IDPs have occupied different places in very miserable conditions: from the local football ground to the land allocated by the administration where houses have been built. However, according to the speaker, the recent decision by the Commission of Land and Other Properties banning inhabitants of the site to build further houses, sowed panic and revolt in the camp. IDPs feel deprived of their fundamental right to have access to decent housing.
It is no surprise then, that tensions have emerged between IDPs and the local administration suspected of collaborating with the militia of the ruling party, apparently determined to close down the camp. These tensions are fuelled by a number of factors, none of which are conducive to reconciliation. These factors include the presence on the site of a large number of loitering youths abusing alcohol, lists of people due to be arrested who are allegedly backing the organised resistance within the camp, the prohibition of night patrols within the camp despite the fact that they are authorised in the surrounding hills, mistrust vis-à-vis the police and external negative influences.
Addressing these concerns, the local police commander pointed out that in all circumstances the disobedience is intolerable. He added that whether the authority is appreciated or not, he must be respected. He reiterated that the militias close to the ruling party have no right to exercise patrols or punish wrongdoers, as this is the job of the police, not civilians. He urged people to fight against rumours and to share any information which may jeopardise the safety of the site and its inhabitants.
Despite the in-depth discussion on security issues, the end of the meeting brought only slight reassurance to the residents. One said:
The pieces of advice were helpful and I really hope the same will be shared with the residents of the hills.
However a more skeptical voice added:
What we want is fairness; we want to be governed by the same laws and especially our rights to be restored because we are not happy living here. We don't have any advantage of staying in the camp but are rather afraid of being killed.Thankfully, the meeting came at the right time, as tensions between residents and administration of the site and some of the inhabitants have escalated, exacerbating mistrust between the two communities. During a violent confrontation between the occupants of the site and residents of the three surrounding hills, at least five people were seriously injured. Two cows, seven goats and a pig were killed, nine houses destroyed and two hundred bananas cut.
One of the highlights of that meeting was the absence of the communal administrator; a very controversial and contested individual within the site. According to some of the IDPs, he is not ready to set foot in this place. However, other local officials, including those who live outside the camp, were present. One of them, Pierre Ntirandekura, said that before the Commission of Land and Other Properties made their decision, the two communities co-existed peacefully and reconciliation was working in the area. He said:
We come to buy goods at the site market and 80% of the population on the hills is willing to accommodate the IDPs.Another individual interrupting the conversation declared:
We want a total and non partial resolution of issues existing in our locality. Real roots of the problem must be addressed and not the visible effects of the conflict.The pacification meeting highlighted the real issues that haunt the people of this site and the IDPs in general as regard to the effective reconciliation between Burundians, which will enable the returning of all IDPs and refugees in their villages, their full rehabilitation and a peaceful co-existence. The effective functioning of two commissions (Commission of Land and Other Properties and Truth and Reconciliation Commission) is crucial to achieve the long-desired reconciliation. However, the action recently demonstrated by the Commission of Land and Other Properties is not likely to reassure all. Decisions to expel some residents from their properties and then force the housing of incoming refugees are appreciated by some, such as the Head of State, who recently congratulated the Commission for its excellent work, but are resented by others, such as those who are expelled.