Displacement and Invisibility Strategies in Postwar Burundi

Cover photo by author. Peace village outside Gitega

Series Introduction

This post is a part of a series introducing the recent anthology Invisibility in African Displacements (Zed Books 2020). The book was edited by Simon Turner and AMMODI co-founder Jesper Bjarnesen, and offers new analytical ideas for understanding migrant in/visibilisation. In each post, the contributors present their chapter in a more accessible format, either by selecting one empirical example or aspect or by relating their central argument to broader societal concerns or debates.

For an outline of the overarching idea behind the book, see the introducing blog post by the editors here.

by Andrea Purdekova

Peacetime Displacements: A typology of (in)visibilities

Graveyard and memorial in Bugendana. Photo by author

Between 2002 and 2005, in the wake of the civil war in Burundi, hundreds of thousands of Burundians have returned to their homeland from protracted, multi-generation exile. They hailed mostly from Tanzania in a mass repatriation exercise considered a major success by the UNHCR. The reintegration challenges were nonetheless plenty. Many came back to their ancestral lands only to find them occupied, while others were resettled in purpose-built reintegration villages. A decade after the mass repatriation, the dust seems to have all but settled. ‘We are in a war-like situation!’ emphasized a widow in a resettlement ‘peace village,’ referencing the heated conflicts on the inside. ‘Peace is not there yet!’ exclaimed an IDP respondent, referencing widespread fears around government’s intent to disperse inhabitants of the informal site.

In academic research and policy thinking alike, powerful labels such as ‘post-war,’ ‘post-conflict’ and ‘peacetime’ tend to create assumptions about a straightforward path from the end of conflict to return and resettlement. After the war and before the recent crisis (2005-2015), Burundi has often been synonymous with mass return of refugees from protracted exile, with important scholarship exploring the challenges of reintegration and continued land conflict in rural areas. Though the emphasis on resettlement has been made for good reasons, this dominant frame nonetheless obscured the continued experiences of displacement and unsettling in post-war Burundi.

My research thus looks at what remains invisible from this dominant lens on post-war space. The invisibility produced through dominant labels and actual interventions must be seen alongside the diverse strategies people deploy to subvert or embrace invisibilisation in order to stake their own claims. Invisibility thus works at two levels at least: a structural form of invisibility that does not negate but simply obscures experiences of dislocation during peacetime, and more micro-level and enabling strategies of invisibility that people use to stake their claims to place in the post-war order. In what follows, I will look at how these disabling and enabling forms of invisibilisation intertwine among returnees resettled in ‘peace villages’ and among IDPs who resist pressures to leave their informal sites.

Powerful labels such as ‘post-war’, ‘post-conflict’ and ‘peacetime tend to create assumptions about a straightforward path from the end of conflict to return and resettlement

Peace Villages: Dislocations of ‘Resettlement’

Peace villages in post-war Burundi were established as a way to resettle returning refugees (principally from Tanzania) who were unable to access their ancestral lands. In this context, the notion of ‘peace’ referred to the purposefully inter-ethnic nature of these villages as spaces where all ethnicities would live side by side. But during my visits to peace villages like Mutambara in Bururi province in the south of the country, the name proved to be misleading. Mutambara village was beset by conflict, which ironically became a source of renewed displacement.

Women walking outside Gishubi. Photo by author.

The conflict that emerged, however, had precious little to do with inter-ethnic tensions. Instead, the conflict in Mutambara revolved around land, dispossession and livelihoods and was tied to the peace village resettlement project as such. First of all, the resettlement site of Mutambara, just like many others across the country, was established on a previously inhabited site. The former residents were said to be illegally occupying the land and were dispersed, only to mount a protest within the peace village, erecting mud house structures right next to the new purpose-built houses. In this act of protest, residents were attempting to make their displacement directly visible and to stake their claims to the site.

As I was entering Mutambara for the first time, inhabitants of the adjacent area pressed on me to interview them too. This was known as the ‘burned area’ and its inhabitants faced an eerily similar predicament to the original settlers of Mutambara. As in the past, the local authorities tried to expel the residents by force to clear the area for a new construction project; this time, the construction of the Makonde peace village.

The ‘occupation’ of the village by former displaced residents created tensions and open conflict between the families of residents and returnees, and led to articulations by former refugees of a desire to flee back to exile. Both sides in this confrontation were trying hard to make their dislocations visible, in the face of silence in the local and national press and the lack of awareness from of politicians, donors and scholars. The Mutambara residents who had their houses ‘occupied’ pooled money to send a representative to Bujumbura to speak directly to the Ministry of Solidarity, Social Affairs, Human Rights and Gender, to little effect.

There were other forms of invisible displacement happening within the villages as well. Most of the beneficiaries questioned whether these sites were viable spaces of resettlement where sustainable livelihoods could be created. The small plots, arid land and few employment options led many to either plan for or dream of returning to exile in Tanzania, and some had already left.  Resettlement villages were thus quite literally sites of active unsettling.

IDP Sites: Resisting Return and Relocation

The post-war focus on return and resettlement obscured another lingering displacement, namely the continued existence of about 120 IDP sites in Burundi almost a decade after the signing of the Arusha peace agreement, sites mostly inhabited by ethnic Tutsi. Despite a lack of international attention, these sites were not invisible in Burundi itself. In fact, the sites were considered undesirable by the government and pressure was mounted by the government for the inhabitants’ dispersal and return back to their hills of origin.

Outside Butengana settlement. Photo by author.

Similar stories around forced dispersal emerged at a number of sites, but no community seemed more acutely worried at the time of my research trips than the IDPs at Bugendana, in central Burundi, about an hour’s drive out of the city of Gitega. Bugendana is an unofficial, precarious settlement with about 500 houses spreading away from an informal memorial graveyard to 670 victims of a vicious attack on the camp in 1996, allegedly perpetrated by then CNDD-FDD rebels, now the dominant political party in power. At Bugendana, the authorities have announced a plan to develop the site into a second national airport, in line with broader plans to develop Gitega into the capital of Burundi. The inhabitants of Bugendana were worried not only about physical removal and forced return but also about the erasure of memory that the redevelopment of this site would entail. They read a range of ulterior motives into the decision to clear the site and forcibly remove them.

Child in Bugendana settlement. Photo by author

Bugendana’s inhabitants, as those of many other sites, resisted dispersal and return to what they believed were unsafe spaces in their home communities and used a variety of strategies to stay put. They actively claimed visibility by protesting the government’s plans as forced displacement, by insisting that a return to their rural homes would maintain their predicament as internally displaced. At the same time, however, they also tried to actively invisibilise themselves as internally displaced in a bid to assert their right to stay.

In their narratives, they purposefully worked to redefine their informal sites as homes and legitimate settlements, even likening them to ‘peace villages.’ ‘Since you are building a peace village over there,’ an old woman in the Mworo Ngundu site suggested, pointing across the road, ‘you should just extend it [to here]…you could provide us with iron sheets and we can build right here. And then we can live in harmony, a Hutu would come and establish a house here…[T]he community is [in fact] mixed, [there are] even Hutu, even Batwa over there.’ Across Burundi’s lingering IDP sites, people were actively drawing on the state’s own rhetoric around the importance of inter-ethnic integration in order to subvert its push for dispersal.

Across Burundi’s lingering IDP sites, people were actively drawing on the state’s own rhetoric around the importance of inter-ethnic integration in order to subvert its push for dispersal

Conclusion: An Unsettling Peace

These examples from my chapter in Invisibility in African Displacements point to the multiple dislocations and displacements operating not simply alongside return and resettlement, or despite peace, but as integrative part of the post-war re-ordering of space and social relations in peace village resettlement sites or lingering IDP sites. Brand new resettlement sites displace prior settlers and become sites of displacement in their own right for the returnees intended to inhabit them. In the meantime, IDP site inhabitants resist active pressures to disperse in the name of social integration and development. Even as they highlight their precarity and inability to return, they also try to invisibilise their status as ‘displaced’ in an attempt to stay put.

Road in Bugendana settlement. Photo by author.

Even though Mutambara and Bugendana reference very different forms of war-related experience – one of mainly Hutu returnees from exile in Tanzania, the other of mainly Tutsi internally displaced – they both point to the unsettling nature of peace in post-accord Burundi. The returnees and IDPs I interviewed questioned the nature of the state-citizen link re-established after the war, and questioned whether there was indeed the sort of security that would enable them to return, and to stay.

About the author

Andrea Purdekova is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies (PoLIS) at the University of Bath. She holds a DPhil in International Development from the University of Oxford where her dissertation explored the Rwandan government’s attempts to build unity after the 1994 genocide. More broadly, her research explores the political dynamics of states emerging from mass violence, specifically the politics of reconciliation and nation building, the politics of memory, and the politics of displacement, settlement and camps. Her regional focus is the Great Lakes Region of Africa and she has conducted most of my research in Rwanda and Burundi. Purdekova is the author of Making Ubumwe: Power, State and Camps in Rwanda’s Unity-Building Project (Berghahn Books, 2015), which was shortlisted for the 2016 Bethwell A. Ogot Book Prize awarded annually by the African Studies Association.

Leave a Reply

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: