File image - Burundian refugees carry food to their shelters at the Myovozi camp in northern Tanzania. Over the last decade, UNHCR has helped resettle over half a million Burundi refugees, some who fled ethnic massacres in Burundi in 1972, others from over 12 years of civil war that broke out in 1993.Photo by George Mulala

Musenyi Transit Centre (Burundi) -

Zacharie Nahimana would have been more willing to go home following years in exile after fleeing Burundi's civil war in 1993 - if he had a place to go to.

But like many others now being pushed to leave Tanzania to go home, he knows the house he left behind almost two decades ago has a new occupant.

“I had a house on Nyamusasa hill, in Rugigi province,” the 62-year-old father of two said as he got off the bus bringing him from a refugee camp in Tanzania to Musenyi, a centre that processes returnees.

“But someone else now lives on our land, so that is why we are hesitating to go back,” Nahimana said.

Over 1,400 travelled alongside Nahimana that day back to Burundi, one of a series of repatriations expected to total around 35,000 this year.

Some haul heavy suitcases, others carry old pieces of furniture, bicycles, solar panels or even chickens.

The return is part of a negotiated deal between Burundi, Tanzania and UN refugee agency UNHCR, which also includes the naturalisation of some 160 000 Burundians in Tanzania.

Over the last decade, UNHCR has helped resettle over half a million Burundi refugees, some who fled ethnic massacres in Burundi in 1972, others from over 12 years of civil war that broke out in 1993.

But while the war ended in 2006, many of those remaining in refugee camps say they do not want to return, with those arriving back in Burundi alleging that Tanzanian security had beaten them and forced them onto the departing buses.

Nowhere to go

Several former refugees say they have nowhere to go now that they are repatriated, while others - like Nahimana - will have to fight to get their land back. Others born in exile do not know where their ancestral roots lie.

Cases involving those without land are referred to Burundi's land commission, which is responsible for resolving land issues in this small, crowded but rural central African nation, where 90 percent of the population lives in the countryside.

Conflict over land is already common - with some rural areas having a population density of over 400 people for every square kilometre (1,000 per square mile) - and the returnees will only add to this pressure.

“Land problems were already Burundi's number one problem,” a foreign observer said. “The return of 35 000 people - who have not always been welcome here - will not improve things.”

Over 60 percent of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition in impoverished Burundi, with a population of around eight million.

Here, where the returnees are coming back home, people are already squeezed onto less than half a hectare (an acre) per family to farm.

“The land question in Burundi has always been an explosive one,” said land commission president Serapion Bambonanire. “Today, the situation shows itself in its seriousness as a result of war, exile and dispossession.”

Decisions by the land commission over ownership have prompted criticism by the new owners, with many angry when they see plots returned to those who fled violence years ago and are now coming home.

Some see a solution to the land problem in family planning, since Burundian families typically have six or seven children.

Others suggest diversification of the economy to encourage a reduction in dependency on subsistence farming.

But for those who have returned, there seems little chance of improvement anytime soon.

It has been two years since 35-year-old father of six Jean Bayezi returned to Burundi, but he still lives in a temporary shelter some 60 kilometres (40 miles) from Bujumbura, a stay originally planned for no more than six months.

“They have now found a parcel of land for us ... but it is only big enough to put up a small house,” Bayezi said. “We are farmers. If they don't give us land to farm we are going to die.” - Sapa-AFP