Nyandwi Philemon was just three years old when he became a refugee.
In 1972, he and his parents fled from their home in Burundi to Tanzania to escape a campaign of violence launched by the Tutsi-dominated government against the Hutu majority.
Mirroring the ethnic divide of its neighbour Rwanda, Tutsis and Hutus clashed in what an international commission dubbed genocide. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Burundians were killed and hundreds of thousands more fled the country, mostly to Tanzania like Philemon.
“When we were in the refugee camps, people used to say that we cannot live with people from other ethnic groups,” Philemon recounted, adding that his parents’ generation was seriously divided.
Indeed, a civil war broke out between the two ethnic groups in 1993, leaving another 300,000 dead. Thirteen years later, in 2006, a peace agreement was signed and Philemon came back to Burundi.
However, when he returned to his parents’ home, he found that the land was taken by someone else. Fortunately, he was given a house in the Mutambara Peace Village, a unique effort to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis by giving them homes to live together in the same village.
Today, some 1,600 Hutus and Tutsis live as neighbours in 300 identical two-room homes constructed of concrete with tin roofs.
“Here all ethnic groups live in harmony,” said Philemon, 41. “When we are here in the Peace Village, we see that we can live with them without any problems and share everything and every condition of life.”
Philemon is a Hutu and he is married to a Tutsi. He said he doesn’t care about ethnicity, adding that it’s used by politicians “to get power.” As the camp’s government representative, he said he’s never received any complaints related to ethnicity.
Instead, the villagers face challenges like lack of employment opportunities.
David Thomas Ciza lived as a refugee in neighbouring Tanzania. He was a refugee for about three decades, having been born as his mother and father fled the war. Now living in this peace village, he said he wants to work but can’t.
“We don’t live in good conditions here because we don’t have land and we don’t have jobs. But when we were in Tanzania we at least had jobs to earn some money,” Ciza explained. “But now things have changed. We just live depending on others. We are not independent."
Another Peace Village resident, Denise Ndabige, agrees. She said the biggest challenge is a lack of food.
“This morning, I haven’t eaten. Even my children didn’t eat,” she said inside her home in the Peace Village. “So we have a problem of finding food because we don’t have a way to cultivate crops. We just spend all the day here. We don’t have land. We can’t even grow small things like vegetables here. We just stay here, just perhaps waiting for death.”
Each family in the Peace Village is given a plot of land, but it’s not big enough to cultivate crops. Charities are helping but the Peace Village project wasn’t designed to support the residents. Established by the United Nations and Burundi’s government, the Peace Village was intended to just give residents a place to live.
“This village is essentially populated with people who have no money,” Philemon explained.
Because of limited incomes, getting medical care is also a challenge for some residents.
“There are some people who are obliged to go five kilometers to visit the hospital,” said Philemon. “But when they arrive, another problem is that they don’t have the money to pay for the drugs. So there are those who decide to stay at home and wait for death from there.
Ndabige said she had a problem with her eyes. “But when I went in the hospital, they charged me so much. So I decided to not to buy the medicine for treatment,” she said.
Forty-year-old Ndabige said getting clean water is also a challenge.
“We just go to fetch in the Morenge River. It is dirty but we have no other choice,” she explained. “We use it to wash our hands, our bodies, our clothes, everything. We drink it, too.”
Burundi is one the world’s poorest countries, with an average annual income per person of about $300.
The residents are not alone in their plight of low employment, little land, expensive medical care and poor water. As the camp’s government representative, Philemon said there’s little support from the capital.
Despite the challenges of life in the Peace Village, Ciza said he’s thankful to have a home here. “When we were in Tanzania, we were facing a terrible situation. We were threatened by different security services, like the army and police,” he explained. “But here in Burundi, it’s safe now and no one comes to ask for your identity card. We are free. I am happy to have my feet on my country’s soil because Burundi is my country.”
Zack Baddorf is a freelance journalist.