(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Glimpse of the Return


Rumor has it that some read this blog to see updates of family and friends (given that I have refrained from joining the Facebook cult). Others are interested in the international humanitarian work. It’s probably successful at neither. It is likely something that is best consulted when people are looking to avoid work or other things that they have been putting off. Or should you be so inclined, you can glance at it while sitting on the loo.

Another long delay and pathetic attempt to catch up. I will. Gradually. This one was written the third week of August.

Given the greater influence of European donors both in what we do and in this community in general, this is normally a slow time. People are on holiday and I remember last year, my first August in the country, I was in fact able to get caught up. This year seems a bit different as we have a lot going on, both in the Rwanda and Burundi programs. I suppose that’s a good thing but I do want to hit September with a clean desktop, both in my office and on my computer.

It’s been a bit more than a month since we returned from our holiday in the US. With the exception of a trip to Rwanda, much of the past few weeks has uncharacteristically been spent in my office. Prior to my recent vacation, I counted that I went 9 weeks in a row with at least some travel outside of Bujumbura each week. Whether getting my internal organs jostled around by bumpy dirt roads or traveling by air and getting violated by TSA agents, it does get old. I was happy to have my routines.

Last week I needed to travel to one of our transit centers near the border with Tanzania. The purpose was to show a representative of the US embassy the work that is being done in support of the repatriation of Burundians who are returning from their lives in the refugee camps of Tanzania as well as for me to check on the work my staff have been doing to prepare for what may be a massive return of 35,000 people over the coming months.
not bad for 15 bucks a night
Generally I would say that the visit was successful. There are three centers altogether with a capacity to accommodate over 3,500 people at a time with a possibility of 2 convoys per week (3 per week if we make some arrangements). If people were all of the sudden return in large numbers, the limiting factor would be the availability of trucks and buses rather than the capacity of the transit facilities, particularly if we’re doing 2 or 3 convoys per week. These things tend to break down a lot on the nasty roads and a lot of them are fairly old. Going to be interesting.
where the returnees are processed
All three centers are operational but we only visited the Mabanda facility which we are using exclusively until the numbers of returnees increases. As the people arrive by truck or bus (hopefully), they come to these centers to be processed, provided repatriation kits (pots, pans, buckets, food rations, etc.) and then we truck them to their destination. We timed this visit such that we were at the center just as a convoy of 109 people was arriving. It’s a minute number compared to the rate of repatriation that is needed to empty the camp by the end of the year (as dictated by the Tanzanian government) but at least some are starting to come.
feeding the multitudes
We toured the facility and were able to see it in action, albeit with a smaller numbers. I have visited it a few times but I’d never seen it in use. It was good to see all the work that had been done to get it in shape for the coming months. The embassy representatives seemed impressed by the work and the complexity involved in gracefully moving large numbers of people, providing them with basic supplies, dealing with some tough protection issues, moving hundreds of kilos of belongings (50/person) and getting them safely to their new (old) home. Then there is the human drama underlying it all. I never want to take for granted, amidst all the larger budgetary and political issues I have to deal with, the immense challenges that these people have faced that led them to become refugees in the first place and the challenges they will continue to face. It’s easy to miss it when you do this for many years. There is usually little emotion in the faces of the returnees, though my guess is that the stoic appearance hides considerable anxiety.
We sat down with a few individuals who volunteered to speak to us. We just wanted to get an idea why they were deciding to return now, why they waited, what they expected in the near future as they go to a place that has not been their home for more than a decade and a half. I’ve had these kinds of conversations before and often they try to figure out what your role is and answer accordingly. It can be tough to get straight, honest answers. In this case I’d say we got about 50% sincerity. It’s too long to tell the stories here but these people have been through a lot. I can’t even imagine. I do hope and pray that this next phase of their lives is far better. My fear is that in returning to one of the poorest countries on earth, the hardship may stick around for awhile. 

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