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Last Burundian refugee camp to close

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Daniel Dickinson
European Commission Humanitarian Aid department

The last refugee camp for Burundian refugees in Tanzania is due to close by the end of June bringing an end to a period of exile which has lasted 16 years.

It is a busy morning at the Mtabila refugee camp in north-western Tanzania. Lines of Burundian refugees wait patiently as the paperwork is finalised for what will be a short but life-changing journey back to their home country.

Six buses and trucks fill up with 301 people, mainly women and children, and snake out of the camp's departure centre through a crowd of people waving enthusiastically and shouting messages of good luck.

On one of the buses is 39 year old Santirine Habonimana and her son. She has spent 15 years at Mtabila and is ambivalent about returning home. She fled her village in Ruyigi province in October 1993 after she watched her husband killed in the civil war which the raged in Burundi.

'I was there when he was shot,' said Santirine Habonimana. 'It is a memory which will never die; I am still disturbed in my head which has made me feel ill for a long time.'

Psychological problems have manifested themselves as physical ailments; she has experienced heart trouble and paralysis in the leg. 'Because I have been ill, I have not been able to do anything but just wait in the camp,' she said. 'I have done nothing constructive for myself. I couldn't even gather firewood; my neighbours helped me with that.'

Santirine Habonimana is one of around 38,000 Burundian at Mtabila camp, the one remaining refugee camp in Tanzania for Burundians who fled the 1993 civil war. Like them and the refugees who have already returned home, she has been totally dependent on the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR for her day-to-day existence.

All refugees in Mtabila are provided with food rations, health care, water and sanitation services as well as other household items like cooking equipment and mattresses.

Santirine Habonimana is following in the footsteps of almost half a million refugees, who have returned to Burundi since 2002, the point at which the country was considered politically stable enough to provide the refugees with a secure and safe place to live.

Repatriation efforts are now being stepped up at Mtabila in order to empty the camp of refugees by the end of June and bring to an end a period of exile that has lasted 16 years. When Mtabila closes, there will be no more camps for the so-called '1993 caseload' of Burundian refugees in Tanzania.

The remaining 38,000 refugees represent the most reluctant returnees according to Silvester Benjamin a refugee leader. 'There are many of us who do not want to return home, who have hoped all along to become Tanzanian citizens, but it is clear now we must return,' he said.

'The Tanzanian and Burundian governments as well as UNHCR agree that the camp should close by the end of June,' he added, 'so we have no other option.

The June 30th deadline may, however, be difficult to meet. The maximum number of people that can be physically processed and returned each week is four thousand. As the camp slowly empties services are being cut. Schools have closed down, water and sanitation services are being scaled down and the Tanzanian army has visited to check the facilities of what will eventually become an army camp.

The European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) has been instrumental in the return process having funded repatriations to the tune of €24.6 million (US$33 million) over the past seven years.

Eric Pitois the ECHO country head of office for Burundi and Tanzania says although it may be difficult for many refugees, returning home is the right thing to do. 'The refugees have not been able to work or even officially leave the camp. A return to Burundi will give them the chance for a fresh start with land and the chance to lead a productive life after so many years of dependency.'

ECHO is providing support to the refugees when they arrive back in Burundi which includes a cash payment of US$45, six months food rations, free health care and a range of household items.

Santirine Habonimana will need all the help she can get. Despite her health problems and terrible memories of the war she is cautiously optimistic about life back home. 'I had no peace of mind in Mtabila, I was not happy. Perhaps back in Burundi I can start again. I still love my country and hope we can live in peace.'