During a handover ceremony last Friday, UNHCR Representative in Burundi Kaba-Guichard Neyaga praised the returnees for their patience and for helping to complete the building of the 200 houses in Gatere, which is located in the western Burundian province of Cibitoke. The US$1.3 million construction project was organised by a government agency.
"From now on, these houses are yours - keep them in a good condition, this is UNHCR's modest contribution to help you reintegrate in your country," Negaya said. The houses were given to 800 landless refugee returnees from the DRC and Tanzania and 200 destitute locals. Tenants who helped in the construction also received food assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP).
Burundi's Minister of Solidarity, Gender and Human Rights Françoise Ngendahayo thanked UNHCR and WFP for their substantial contributions. She promised the new homeowners land for cultivation. The government has also said it would build a school and health centre.
The recipients of the brick houses with corrugated iron roofs were delighted. "In Burundi, if you have no land, you have no life," said 52-year-old Delia Bangirinama, who returned from Kamanyola in the DRC in 2004 but was unable to integrate into the community. She spent nearly two years living in a makeshift shelter alongside a main road.
Delia recalled the bad days when she had to send her children to beg in Buganda, a nearby town. "That was the dark period of my life for which I am still feeling shame. We are now living in a community. This is a new start for our life. UNHCR has restored my honour," she said.
The houses were allocated on the basis of one family per house. UNHCR has funded construction of similar houses in other parts of the country, including 200 in the eastern province of Ruyigi and 800 in the southern province of Makamba.
There are still more than 370,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, the DRC and Rwanda. Since the beginning of a voluntary repatriation programme in 2002, UNHCR has assisted the return of some 342,000 Burundian refugees. The agency has been actively promoting repatriation since June last year.