Like the rest of southern Burundi, Rumonge, in the province of Bururi, was deeply affected by the 1972 massacres and 1993 crisis, and the area saw many people fleeing to other parts of the country, or leaving Burundi completely. With its active palm oil tree plantations and fishing activities on Lake Tanganyika, Rumonge, is now the most developed commune in Burundi (a 'commune' in Burundi is an administrative unit within a province). However, despite this relative prosperity many issues from the conflict in Burundi remain, in particular over land.
As large numbers of people had left their properties, the government of the second republic decided to reallocate the vacant land, some was given to the people that remained, whilst other pieces of land were converted into state property.
But over the past seven years, stability has steadily increased. All the former rebel groups have signed the peace agreement and many of their combatants have either joined the national army or the police, or demobilised completely. General elections were successfully held in 2005 and Burundians are preparing to vote again in May and June this year.
The improvement of the political situation has paved the way for the return of one of Africa’s longest staying refugee populations. Since 2002, the UNHCR has assisted the voluntary repatriation of over 500,000 Burundian refugees from neighbouring countries, with the majority coming from Tanzania.
However, upon arrival the country, most of the returnees have found their properties occupied by people who have been authorised by the government to resettle on the land they had left behind. On the one hand, the returnees claim they should be resettled in their former lands now they have come back. While on the other hand, the current occupants of those lands claim to have the legal permission to occupy them.
In an attempt to solve this dilemma, the government established the National Land and Other Properties Commission (NLOPC), which helps returning refugees recover their assets. To date it has registered more than 12,000 land and 18,000 property conflicts.
Locally-led resolution of land conflicts
As returnees are still coming back, hostility and suspicion is evident amongst those who stayed and those who left. “How can you still love someone when you can’t find anything to eat while the person who occupies your land is satisfied?” said a former combatant of the FLN, the last rebel group to sign the peace agreement.
However, diverse peacebuilding efforts have been initiated to try to peacefully resolve the numerous land-conflicts existing in the region. In Gatete zone of Rumonge, Search For Common Ground (SFCG), an international NGO that has worked in Burundi since 1995, initiated a Listening Club - "Dufatane Munda" ("Let’s help each other"). Members of this club listen to two weekly radio programmes focused on land issues, problems and solutions, broadcast on Isanganiro Radio through Studio Ijambo. After listening, people have their say and about the lessons they have learnt from the programmes.
According to Mrs Christine Ntahe, facilitator of the initiative, the club is achieving positive results:
At the beginning nobody among the returnees, former combatants and those who stayed could talk to each other. They literally hated each other, they globalized, and they rejected responsibility of what happened in the past to each other; everybody was pessimistic. I had to struggle to lead the listening sessions. Nobody wanted to see their neighbour, they didn’t greet each other. The ex-combatants there used to say: 'everybody is bad'. But after several sessions of listening they timidly began greeting each other, talking, laughing and actually I often have much difficulty beginning activities because it is difficult for me to interrupt their interactions and discussions.Mrs Ntahe went on to say that members of Dufatane Munda Club have now become friendlier. "Those who stayed accepted to share their properties with the repatriated without the intervention of the NLOPC. They planed together to gather food for those who still have nothing at all in the villages".
Even if some people are making great efforts to divide their properties, they still live in extreme poverty, observed Mrs Ntahe. Moreover, one person who received a share of property regrets that the government left them here but it never returned to assist them and complain about the lack of basic services.
National programmes such as the NLOPC clearly have a vital role to play if land conflicts in Burundi are to be resolved. But this example from Rumonge shows that a few courageous people are able to resolve land conflicts themselves, or through mediation from organisations like SFCG.
Would we take guns again?
Burundi is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a majority of its population living in poor conditions and relying on subsistence farming to survive. Land-based conflicts are reported throughout the country and appear to be a major concern for the stability of the country. Although the government has set up the NLOPC to deal with this complex issue, it is reported that local administration sometimes plays the role of the commission but has failed to reconcile returnees and those who stayed in the villages. The efforts of external and independent bodies or organisations are still desperately needed to tackle this issue in a more consensual and informal way.
For the people of Gatete centre, there are many reasons that could push them to again take up arms and fight each other. But instead they recognised the complexity of the problem and seem ready to tackle it patiently together, and with the help of local administration and government institutions.
But in Rumonge, there is a category of people whose lands were converted into state property during their exile. For them, it is difficult to find a solution because this question has been irregularly managed by different authorities who rule the country and the region. Many of them are literally hopeless.
After the 1972 crisis, more than 600 families of Makombe village in Gatete were dislocated, and an area of 650 hectares of the land they left behind was converted into a natural reserve by the government to preserve the environment and rare biodiversity of the region.
According to the leader of those families, force can’t bring lasting solution.
We could take machetes and go to cut the trees planted by the government or we could take guns like others because I think that with 600 families we’re enough to be heard - but we didn't act. We referred our problems to court and we are waiting for the judgement.