Crimes Of War: Returning Congolese Refugees Find Homes, Lands Have Been Stolen
Since the end of the civil war, many of the refugees exiled in neighboring African countries have been coming home to the Democratic Republic of Congo, only to find that their homes have been stolen or sold, and that there's little they can do ab
BARAKA – Once, they had fled their land and homes to escape the armed conflict plaguing their region. Now Congolese refugees from the Fizi and Uvira territories are coming back home after years of exile to find their old property has been occupied – or destroyed -- by others.
Here in the Sud-Kivu province in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 64,000 locals have already come back from Tanzania and Burundi since 2005. Some 60,000 Congolese are still living in Tanzania and 29,000 in Burundi. Most of them won't come home because they are worried they won't be able to recover the lands and properties they left behind years earlier.
And of those who have returned to Congo, many found their houses destroyed and their fields being farmed by others after they had been sold by family members or stolen by neighbors. No one wants to hand back their properties, leaving the former refugees with nothing.
Kasindi Jean lost everything in 1998 when he fled to Tanzania to escape the civil war. "My cows, fields, my home and all my belongings have been taken," he says.
Also back from Tanzania, Pamba Selemani found his old house, where he planned to live with his eight children, being lived in by a neighbor who told him he bought it from his uncle. He referred the matter to local authorities but they swiftly said there was nothing they could do. "As a refugee with nothing, I can't stand up to someone with money," he says.
Many of the returning refugees have the same story. Bilombele, exiled for 10 years and repatriated in 2009, found an army officer living in his house in Baraka. The new occupant threatened to kill him if he tried to get his house back. "My family told me to give up. I was forced to move back to my native village of Mboko," a place he left 15 years ago and where he was considered as a stranger. To be able to cultivate a tiny bit of land, he now has to pay a rental price of two goats a year.
Words and deeds
But according to local village leaders, some of the Congolese who come back try to take advantage of their refugee status to steal lands that do not belong to them. "How can someone who left 50 years ago return to claim a land he says he inherited from his parents?" wonders Bin Tembwe from Kaboke.
Not everyone is giving up. Some repatriates are fighting for their rights, with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the human rights NGO Arche d'Alliance. The problem is that refugees don't always have the title deeds proving they are the land's owners, says Me Ibrahimu from the NGO.
To avoid conflicts from deteriorating, "we try to come to an amicable agreement between both sides, based on testimony from neighbors and trustworthy villagers. That way we manage to settle some disputes."
Asumani Kiza, who came back from Burundi to Uvira in 2005 after nine years abroad, won his case: "After three years of what seemed like never-ending proceedings, I finally got my home back."
The best solution to put an end to this situation, according to the UNHCR and the Congolese National Commission for Refugees (NCR), is to provide refugees with title deeds. In September 2011, a first group of 68 expatriates received deeds for houses built by the UNHCR in Fizi and Uvira. In all 675 people should be able to benefit from this program, but it is currently on hold because of ongoing political strife in the country.
Many people believe however that the NCR is not doing its job. According to Patience Alesire, from the NGO OSEP, the national refugee commission is not doing enough for those returning, limiting their action to organizing the repatriation. Political roadblocks have stalled government plans in 2011 to create arbitration committees to resolve property disputes.
Read the article in French in Syfia.
Photo- Syfia Grands Lacs