Burundians are one of the communities with which RET has worked for since inception. The economic, social and ethnic conflicts, which the country has experienced since the 1970s, have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and rendered a whole generation of young people vulnerable. It was in 2002, already 13 years ago, that RET established its first project in Tanzania a country that had received a great number of Burundian refugees.
The first refugees fled Burundi in 1972, therefore several generations were actually born in the camps. A new wave of displacement came in 1993 as Burundi was mired in a deadly internal conflict.
The programmes that RET developed at the time were focused on offering quality post-primary education in the camps. The bulk of the activities consisted of infrastructure, teacher training, the provision of educational material, developing life skills, and providing formal secondary education.
These activities in Tanzania were maintained until 2006. In addition, in 2005 RET had to start cross-border activities in order to prepare for the return of the 500,000 refugees. Access to the educational system and reintegration were becoming the main preoccupations of Burundian families heading back home, who were extremely concerned that their children born in exile did not even speak French and Kirundi.
RET concentrated its activities on building the capacity of the Burundian educational system, so it may adequately integrate these new students. RET worked very closely with UNHCR to determine the provinces and communities of highest return, and with the Burundian Ministry of Education to determine in which schools it was necessary to build capacity. At the same time, reconstruction of hundreds of schools was vital for the return and reintegration of the repatriating Burundians.
Furthermore, building teacher housing was absolutely critical, as the majority of teachers were willing to work in the capital but not in the provinces. The provision of housing overcame the concerns for security and integration. RET, therefore concentrated on both “hardware” (construction and equipment) and “software” such as teaching the local languages as a priority.
Once these foundations had been established, RET started to concentrate on the important theme of responsible citizenship among young people. If provided with the proper resources and support young people can become positive actors and leaders in the reconstruction process. With the same vision RET also managed scholarships for tertiary education through the UNHCR DAFI fund.
After a long internal conflict and now approaching heated elections, it is more than ever time to push programmes which allow for tolerant environments to take hold. Young people have to be given the opportunity to play a positive role without being manipulated by adults and the bitterness of the past. Protecting young people in Burundi is achieved through the provision of educational tools allowing them to avoid a new cycle of violence in their communities.
Our present projects, made possible by the generous support of UNICEF, focus on the development of leadership capacities of young people and youth associations, with a strong accent put on the autonomy of young women.
Burundi is in a situation of fragile transition. It is finally emerging from a long crisis, but is susceptible to rapidly dive back into violence. Young people are the ones who have the potential to tip the scale in the right direction. They are the agents of positive social change, leading their communities towards peace.