It’s a title deed, providing legal proof that the father of seven is the owner of the plot of land where he and his family have lived in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s South Kivu province since returning home from exile in Tanzania in 2008.
“I can’t believe it,” Salumu said, his voice breaking with emotion. “Nobody can argue with me now about my land. I’ve become the owner,” added the patriarch, who is in his 60s. His joy has been made possible by a shelter programme launched by UNHCR, in cooperation with the government, to avoid land and property disputes.
The former refugee was among a first group of 68 returnees given title deeds for land in South Kivu’s Uvira and Fizi districts at a government ceremony last month in the province’s Kavimvira transit camp. More are expected to have their land ownership claims recognized in the coming weeks.
Uvira and Fizi are the main areas of return in eastern Congo for refugees in neighbouring Tanzania and Burundi. Since the start of a UNHCR-run voluntary repatriation programme in 2005, more than 64,000 Congolese have come back home from the two countries with the agency’s help.
Salumu lost everything when he crossed into Tanzania in 1996 to escape the civil war that was ravaging in South Kivu and other parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“My cows, my fields and my land, all were plundered. I had to flee with my family,” he said. “Even when I returned, people still took possessions, but that’s all behind me now,” he said, brandishing his title deed and thanking UNHCR for helping him find a livelihood and build his brick home.
The absence of adequate housing and land has been one of the biggest challenges refugees face upon their return to South Kivu. After years of absence, many find their homes destroyed and have nowhere to stay. Others find their former land is occupied.
In the past three years, UNHCR has funded the construction of some 1,650 brick homes and distributed 2,655 shelter kits to returnees in Uvira and Fizi districts, or enough for 21,000 people.
But arguments over land ownership have persisted and boiled over into violence on a few occasions between refugee returnees and those who remained in Uvira or Fizi throughout the war, which formally ended with a fragile peace accord in 2003.
In a bid to avert such disputes and to protect returnees living in the new shelters, UNHCR, working through the National Commission for Refugees, has over the past two year held talks with the local and provincial authorities aimed at putting in place a system charged with issuing legally binding ownership documents.
“These steps led earlier this year to the establishment of a project aimed at granting title deeds to the residents of 675 of these shelters,” explained Aminata Bamba, head of the UNHCR sub-office in Uvira. “This happy outcome will encourage other refugees living in the region to return home.”
Célestine, a 55-year-old widow who was also given a title deed by the governor of South Kivu at the Kavimvira ceremony, said some Congolese exiles refuse to return because they remain concerned about the situation.
“Some refugees in Tanzania are not coming back because they don’t believe they will get access to their land and belongings and this is an essential condition for them to return,” she said, while adding that she was happy she had come back and acquired ownership of her land. “I am happy because my children will benefit from this land, even when I am no longer on this earth.”
More than 60,000 Congolese refugees still live in Tanzania and 29,000 in Burundi. UNHCR and the DRC authorities are working with the governments of the two host countries to find durable solutions for these people.
By Simplice Kpandji in Uvira, Democratic Republic of the Congo