Burundi

Feature: Judgement call for Burundi's returnees

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CUMBA, Burundi (UNHCR) - When Pelagie Narugora returned to her home village after seven years as a refugee in Tanzania, she discovered that her family's large land holdings had been taken over by a neighbour who had stayed behind.
It is a common problem among returning refugees, but Narugora has taken an uncommon avenue to try to resolve it. The 32-year-old former refugee has turned to a travelling "judicial clinic", funded by the UN refugee agency, that tries to settle disputes between local residents and returnees by informal mediation, without the time and expense of normal court proceedings.

Easing disputes between Burundians who fled civil war to become refugees in other countries, and those who stayed at home, is a priority for UNHCR as thousands of Burundians voluntarily decide that it is time to return home after years in exile.

"Part of UNHCR's mandate is to ensure that returnees integrate well into their communities," says UNHCR Representative in Burundi, Stefano Severe. "But of course this clinic serves everybody."

On market day in the village of Cumba in the north of the country, three legal experts from the International Human Rights Group - which is running the pilot project for UNHCR - set up shop at a simple, approachable wooden table and invite people with grievances to come forward.

As the three legal experts - two men and one woman - take notes, Narugora explains that she is one of six daughters of a couple who had no sons. After their father died, their mother "went mad" and was not able to look after the family property.

Her sisters do not live nearby, so she alone wanted to reclaim the land when she returned from Tanzania last year. That was when she found that a neighbour had occupied it. "It's a very large property and he can't even cultivate all the land. There is a large part which is lying fallow," she tells the three experts.

"He took it because he knows there are only women in my family," she concludes. "I want him either to give back the land or to pay me money for it."

The judges issue an "invitation" for the alleged interloper to appear and give his side of the story. Although the clinic cannot compel witnesses to appear, many "invitees" agree to show up voluntarily, says one of the experts. If a witness refuses the invitations four times, the clinic usually advises the complainant to turn to more established legal channels.

"The majority of cases are people trying to get their land back," says Bosco Bigirimana, a lawyer who helped set up the clinic. "Other cases are family problems, problems of inheritance because men have two, three or four wives." The clinic's experts have to counsel women that polygamy is against the law in Burundi. "Second, third and fourth wives are often astonished to learn that polygamy is against the law and that their marriages are not valid," adds Bigirimana.

With no bureaucracy and great informality, the judicial clinic resolves cases quickly. "We can resolve many cases in one session if they don't require witnesses," says Bigirimana. The panel of experts often manages to negotiate restitution or some other settlement that leaves all parties to a dispute satisfied.

"The majority of the cases which come here are settled at this level," adds Gilbert Ndikuriyo, one of the experts hearing cases in Cumba. "We explain to people that going to court is a long process, very time consuming and expensive. We try by all means to avoid going to court. But if someone is stubborn, we will indicate to them the best way to settle things, so that they go to court only as a last resort."

The judicial clinic handles cases among local people as well as disputes between locals and returnees who are trying to reintegrate into their former communities. "They should settle their cases in a friendly manner, rather than in an adversarial manner," says Ndikuriyo.

UNHCR's Severe adds, "The clinic aims at the grassroots and at vulnerable groups that would not necessarily feel comfortable coming to the more intimidating established court system."

He says UNHCR is trying to find funding to expand the pilot project and make it more permanent. Already, the clinic has some important local backing, with priests publicising it in Roman Catholic churches after mass.

And even though her land dispute is far from resolved, returnee Narugora is thrilled at the prospect of an informal, inexpensive solution. After telling her story to the three legal experts, she passes her own judgement on the clinic: "It seems like a miracle to me."

By Kitty McKinsey
UNHCR Regional Office in Nairobi