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In Burundi, new beginnings for conflict-affected communities

By Eliane Luthi

As the country continues to move beyond the conflicts of the past, young people in Burundi are playing a leading role in peacebuilding efforts by coming together to confront long-standing social divisions.

MAKAMBA, Burundi, 27 February 2015 – Deep within the province of Makamba in Burundi, at the end of a long, red dirt track, lies a modest palm plantation. A group of youths are hard at work, harvesting palm nuts to transform into oil for use in soap. But this is not just any group. They are young people whose families have historically been on two sides of an important divide: the one between ‘residents’ and returnees – between those who fled during periods of conflict and those who stayed behind. 

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Luthi
Antoinette Irarera leads a training session on psychosocial counselling in Makamba, Burundi.

In a country highly dependent on agriculture for survival, that divide is fuelled by conflict centered on land.

“We used to have three hectares,” remembers 21-year-old Domitien Ndayisaba, a young farmer from the Nyabigina colline in Makamba. “Then in 2012, we had to cede one hectare to a returnee family. We were shocked – we thought that land would always be ours.”

Land pressure

Burundi, which has seen extended periods of ethnic and political violence since its independence in 1962, has a population that is very young – over half the population is under 18 – and overwhelmingly rural, with nearly 90 per cent living off the land. One of the most densely populated countries in Africa, Burundi’s already severe land shortage was put under additional strain as former Burundian refugees from the 1972 and 1993 conflicts progressively returned to the country. In many cases, they returned to find their land occupied; meanwhile, residents who had bought or inherited the land found themselves facing expulsion, whether by the courts or threat of violence. Ceding land has been a common solution, yet it often means compounding an existing situation of poverty – especially for large families like Domitien’s, whose parents had eight children. 

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Luthi
Domitien, left, tends a palm plantation alongside a group of resident and returnee youth.

“Because of what happened to my family, I used to resent returnees,” says Domitien. “There was no social contact between us and them.”

“Land conflict and poverty has been an important driver of social tension and exclusion here,” notes Antoinette Irarera, a trained psychologist in charge of the youth programme at Centre Ubuntu. “A lot of suspicion and distrust has been created between young residents and returnees. Among the young returnee population, we often see aggressive behavior patterns being adopted. They lack a space where they can air their difficulties and open up.”

Restoring values

Centre Ubuntu is a key UNICEF partner for peacebuilding in Burundi. Created in 2002 following the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, the organization now works in more than 250 communities and focuses on value-based reconciliation between groups that have traditionally been opposed.

“After the massacres, we began to wonder, in view of all that happened: How can we restore our values?” says Benjamin Ngororabanga, Deputy Coordinator at Centre Ubuntu. “And we found that what we still have in common is our humanity, and that value is the basis for all the rest.”

A core pillar of UNICEF’s peacebuilding strategy in Burundi is focused on youth and adolescents, in particular developing their leadership and peacebuilding skills in order to strengthen their resilience against violence. Centre Ubuntu trains youth on core values, such as peaceful resolution of conflicts, leadership, development and empowerment. 

© UNICEF Burundi/2015/Luthi
Domitien loads freshly harvested palm nuts into a processer.

“We look at how to bring youth from different groups together,” explains Benjamin. “They identify their problems together, then they try to find solutions to their mutual problems. Dialogue creates tolerance, and the more tolerance there is, the better the environment for development becomes. Often, young people discover that they have been hating each other for nothing.”

Coming together

But the approach goes beyond fostering dialogue: it also has young people identify a project to work on together, with a follow-up team ensuring the project achieves its results. The youth from Nyabigina colline, including Domitien and other residents and returnees, are actively involved in the palm plantation project, which is generating much-needed income and promoting social inclusion at the same time – important measures towards strengthening resilience.

In this small community, a radical shift has occurred, with youth setting the example.

“There was one returnee girl that I couldn’t stand,” recalls Domitien. “Now I understand her situation, and why she acted the way she did. We talk and share experiences now – she’s become a friend.”

“We used to block paths that led to the homes of residents,” remembers Jeannine Havevimana, a 20-year-old returnee who spent more than 10 years in refugee camps in Tanzania. “None of the returnees wanted to have any contact with residents. There was a lot of conflict between us. Now, we lend farming equipment to each other, and all the children play ball games together.”

Domitien’s family and the returnee family that received some of their land have rebuilt their relationship.

“We have dinner together, and we farm together,” he says. “They even lend us a little bit of land when we really need it. Our relationship has completely changed.” 



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