Although he looks frail, Cossan Ntabwigwa, in his late 60s, is a determined man. He recently returned from Tanzania, where he had been a refugee since 1972, and is seeking to resettle on a piece of land he left years ago.
Despite finding someone else occupying the land, Ntabwigwa is determined to reclaim it, and he says sharing it with the current occupant is out of the question.
“I left two other brothers there [in Tanzania] who are married and with children and who must also get a share of this land,” he said.
When he repatriated from Gatumba settlement in Tanzania at the beginning of August, Ntabwigwa, who heads a 10-member family, spent three days at the commune headquarters in Nyanzalac, Makamba province, waiting to go home.
Like most Burundians, Ntabwigwa’s strong attachment to land means he is unwilling to share his piece of land with the current occupant, whom he considers an outsider since he is not a family member.
Also in Nyanzalac, Alexis Anthony Kifumu, his wife and six children, have been squatting at an elementary school for two weeks. He returned to Burundi to find part of his land occupied by the school while a businessman had used another portion to put up a pub and a shop.
Local administrative officials advised Kifumu to use the remaining 30 metres to build himself a house.
“I have started making bricks, I think it will take me 14 days to get them ready and if I build a house, I will try to work and live as best as I can while waiting for my case to be settled,” he said.
Although Kifumu calmly accepted the situation, in line with his Christian faith, he seemed disillusioned.
“I am surprised to find that I am not even authorised to use a classroom while waiting to build my house; when there is a disaster, people seek shelter in schools yet they have no pity for us,” Kifumu said.
According to a UNHCR factsheet for July, 11,020 of the returnees in 2008, estimated at 59,877, are refugees from the 1972 caseload.
While returnees who fled the country in 1993 find it slightly easier to resettle, the case is not the same for the 1972 caseload, as exemplified by the cases of Ntabwigwa and Kifumu, for whom disputes over land ownership can at times take long to resolve.
Indeed, the complex problem of land remains a major challenge to the reintegration of returnees. Not only do many, if not all returnees have a land-dispute related story to tell, but land has become a scarce commodity.
Bernard Ntagumuka, an advisor of the administrator at the commune of Nyanzalac, said the number of returnees who have resettled was insignificant compared to the number of returnees who find their land occupied by others, “either legally or illegally”.
“Others [returnees] find that the government used them [their land] for social infrastructure; take the urban centre of Nyanzalac for instance, it was built on people’s land,” Ntagumuka said.
In other instances, returnees find their land has been resold and divided to the extent that reclaiming it becomes difficult since it has passed from one owner to another. In some cases, refugees returned home, sold their land and went back to Tanzania.
When civil war broke out in Burundi 1972, thousands of Burundians fled to neighbouring countries, leaving their property behind and their lands vacant. In many regions of Burundi, especially the southern provinces of Bururi and Makamba, the then government encouraged people from other regions to occupy the land.
Nestor Niyonkuru, an information officer for the Commission on Land and Other Properties, said: “Logic would dictate that the new occupant vacates the land and return it to the owner, but it is not as simple as it seems.
“Some were given title deeds to the land, others have exploited it for more than 30 years and under Burundian law, this entitles them to the land; others have lived on the land for generations and simply have nowhere to go.”
Complicity by past governments
With the increasing number of returnees, land disputes have increased sharply. In the past, the different governments that have controlled the country did not settle the land issue comprehensively, sometimes even complicating the situation. Some government and army officials were allocated title deeds for houses and land left by those who fled the civil war, especially in the southern regions, which are rich in oil-bearing palms.
William Hamenyimana, who fled Burundi in 1972, returned in the 1980s to find his land in Rumonge, Bururi province, occupied.
“My land was given to a senior army officer, when I returned home, I was forced out; I had left a whole plantation of palm oil but I accepted [not to claim it] just to save my life and was given another piece of land in Nyanzalac,” he said. “Now that the owner of this land is back, they are telling me to share the small piece with him or leave it, if the occupant of my [original] land leaves, then I will leave this one.”
Hamenyimana said while they were in Tanzania, they were made to believe that they would reclaim their land.
“Now they come and force us out overnight, that is not the way it should be done,” he said.
Such actions build anger in people who were forced out of their land for one reason or another and who now have to share or to be moved once again.
Ntagumuka said local administrative officials handle about 10 cases of land dispute daily but they are often overwhelmed, with no solution at hand.
“We only sensitise them telling them to share land whenever possible but it is not always easy,” Ntagumuka said.
According to Niyonkuru, one third of land disputes in the country ere presently registered in the provinces of Bururi and Makamba, the two areas to which most of the 1972 refugees are returning.
However, some of the returnees and those internally displaced prefer to avoid confrontation and simply share the land. Niyonkuru said by June 2008, some 657 cases of land disputes had been settled, and 394 of them did not require the intervention of the land commission, which only endorsed the decisions as the parties signed agreements.
The Burundi government set up the land commission in 2006 to help returnees recover their land and other property lost during the civil war.
The commission was not only intended to lighten the load of law courts overwhelmed by land disputes but to also simplify the procedures and spare the returnees the delays and costs.
However, the commission does not have the power of a court and only mediates between the parties. If it fails, the parties still have to go to court.
Since its creation, the commission has registered 10,541 cases, but only 657 had been settled as at June 2008, prompting criticism from human rights activists.
“If the land issue is not dealt with adequately, it can be the source of potential violence,” Joseph Ndayizeye, the deputy chairman of the Human Rights League in the Great Lakes Region, said at a press conference in August.
Ndayizeye proposed the creation of a specialised court to deal with land disputes, saying it seems the commission’s competence was limited.
A survey conducted by the commission in December 2007 found more than 34,000 hectares of land belonging to the state in the hands of individuals who appropriated or received the land from local chiefs illegally.
Human rights activists say if such land was to revert to state ownership, then perhaps the landless, including returnees, could be resettled.