UN World Food Programme

In Burundi, A Landless Refugee Family Returns Home To Start Life Anew

Elysée standing in front of his cowshed in the integrated rural village of Musenyi in Makamba province, south Burundi. Copyright: WFP/Michel Rwamo

Some of the Burundian refugees whose families fled the country in 1972 do not know where in Burundi they came from. When they repatriate, they are hosted in integrated rural villages set up by the government where they begin a new life from scratch. WFP provides food assistance to help them get a good start. Elysée Mbonye is one of them.

Forty years ago, Elysée Mbonye was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania, near the southwest city of Kigoma. Before his birth, his parents had fled for their lives when a civil war broke out in their home country, Burundi, in 1972.

Thirty-six years later, Elysée wanted to come back to his motherland to begin a new life in a country where he had no land, lacking even a point of reference or a village to call home. His parents had died long ago without telling him exactly where they had come from in Burundi.

Like other returnees in his situation, he and his family ended up in an integrated rural village. Today, he heads one of the 199 households living in one of the integrated rural villages located in the south of Burundi. These villages were set up by the government as a temporary solution for returnees who do not know their origins in the country. They needed a place to put down new roots, and the government was going to help them do just that by providing them with a plot of land to grow food. But before they could sustain themselves, they had to rely on the humanitarian community for their daily survival and face the hardships of starting a new life from scratch.

"Some days after our arrival in the village, we were desperate. We could hardly bear the idea that, in our own country, we were going to live a life of refugees, which we had just left behind," Elysée said. Though they had good shelters in the form of houses with iron roofs, food could not be found anywhere in the village -- no crops, no livestock, no shops.

But WFP was there, providing food to returnees alongside other humanitarian agencies assisting those vulnerable people. Upon arrival at transit camps, the families received hot meals, and they got a one-month return food package upon departure to the village. To help them get a good start, they received a monthly ration for five months. After those first six months, following a delay in land allocation, the governement requested WFP to continue providing food assistance for another 6 months. WFP once again provided this life-saving support.

"All my life, I have been living on WFP food," Elysée explained. "If I am still alive, I owe it to the humanitarian organizations. When I arrived in Burundi, I knew WFP would not let me down."

However, Elysee also understood that, once back in his motherland, he would have to become able to support himself. Using his pay from casual labour jobs, he bought two goats, some chickens and then a bull. Why a bull, and not a female cow? For him, a bull was the best choice because he could get immediate cash by selling its services to impregnate his neighbours’ female cows. With the cash he saved, he then bought a female cow.

The surroundings of his house, though small, are green with vegetables of different sorts thanks to the fertilizers he gets from his animals and he is now able to feed his family.