Over the last ten years, more than 500,000 ethnic-Hutu refugees came back to their homes in southern Burundi, from neighboring Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo. Disputes between residents and returnees who are claiming their land back after a decade-long absence are one of the main causes of conflict in the area.
While in 2006 the government established the Commission des Terres et Autres Biens (CNTB), a delegation in charge of addressing grievances over land, community mediation has played a significant role in helping parties find amicable solutions to conflicts and foster harmony in the communities, reducing the burden on the CNTB itself.
Frida Ndagijimana is a local mediator from the village of Karonda, in the Rumonge province. As an affiliate of the local CNTB division, Frida had already solved 66 conflicts between residents and returnees before participating in the training organized by our Burundi office in 2013. The new skills she learned enabled her to solve difficult disputes, as well as reach her personal record of 22 successful mediations in only a year and a half.
She admits that, prior to participating in our program, she saw herself as someone who would drop things when they got too complicated. Now, with 88 mediations under her belt, she’s learned that “a mediator doesn’t get tired. As mediators, we must believe that a solution is possible and persevere until a solution that is acceptable to both parties is found, regardless of the time and energy it takes.”
“Through the training,” she says, “I learned that a good mediator should first meet each party separately, and listen carefully to each of them. Listening and discretion are crucial. After that, the mediator must meet all the other persons who may possess useful information about the case: family members, neighbors, local authorities, etc. This research is fundamental to understanding the root causes of the conflict. Only after can the mediator bring both parties together. When both parties realize that the mediator knows a lot about their case, they speak more frankly and a solution can be reached.”
Frida’s methods are widely appreciated by the parties in disagreement too. “It feels like a miracle. I never thought that we would find a common ground”, said Gaspard Kabondo, 60 year-old resident in Karonda, Rumonge, who was involved in a land dispute with Jafari Muheba, a returnee. The latter added that “this conflict had been going on for six years. My family members were seriously considering taking violent revenge against the occupant of our land. But through her charisma and her discrete researches, Frida managed to convince both of us”.
Frida notes that “the case was blocked because the resident, Gaspard Kabondo, firmly insisted that he had acquired the land legally and possessed all the necessary administrative documents. However, when researching the case I found that his documents were not legitimate because he had received them from a local leader who was not legally habilitated to deliver land titles. This is why it is important to do research. Also, I had to demonstrate to the returnee that after 30 years living on this land, the current resident did not have anywhere else to go. Both parties finally accepted to share this land and cohabitate in harmony.”
Chantal Nzeyimana, a local Mushingantahe mediator living in central Rumonge, also changed the focus of her work after participating in our program. She says that “prior to the training in mediation techniques, I felt that as a woman, I was not capable of dealing with hard land conflict issues, and that I should limit myself to mediating smaller-scale domestic conflicts or conflicts between neighbors. I wanted to do more, but I lacked the self-confidence”.
“This training really convinced me to start tackling land conflicts between residents and returnees in my community,” she adds. “After the training in 2013 and the regional exchange visit with the Abunzi mediators in Rwanda in 2014, I decided to be courageous and apply the new skills […] to mediating a conflict that had lasted for ten years without finding a solution.”
Chantal was surprised by the results she achieved. “You know, it might be strange but sometimes the things that seem very difficult can in fact hide an easy solution” she said, laughing. “As a mediator, one needs to be confident in her own capacity to solve the conflict.”
Thanks to her work, the lives of the resident and returnee that she helped have changed for the better. “When the Burundian government told us that we could now return home, that we would get back our land and other belongings, all I had in mind was getting my land back. When I arrived and saw that my land was now occupied by several houses, built by new residents, I was determined to not stop fighting”, mentioned Balthazar, the returnee.
The resident on Balthazar’s land, Silvère, described how Chantal’s mediation guided them toward a solution. “She gave us enough time to think,” he explained. “One month later, she invited both of us to her house. Like in a magic trick, I proposed a sum of money to the returnee in exchange for the land; and it turned out he had the exact same idea. Things started moving faster and we agreed on the amount of 3,000,000 BIF for the land.” Balthazar indicated that “with this money, [he] purchased another piece of land in Rumonge’s center, and will build a house on it where [his] family will live happily.”
Talent, leadership, and the determination to find nonviolent solutions to disputes can work wonders, as Chantal and Frida’s stories prove. The gratitude they receive from the people they help, and the recognition they gained in their communities, reinforce their passion and resolve. Peaceful coexistence in the community of Rumonge has found two formidable allies…
Gabrielle Solanet is a Regional Project Coordinator at Search for Common Ground.
Jean-Paul Nicondindiriye is a Journalist and Producer at Search for Common Ground Burundi.
Banner photo (left to right): Gaspard, Frida and Jafari pose together after a mediation session.