Nairobi- Kenya (PANA) -- The final phase of the repatriation of tens of thousands of Burundians who fled to Tanzania in 1972 got underway this week.
The exercise started when a UNHCR convoy carrying about 500 people crossed the b order and arrived at a new transit centre in Burundi, the UN refugee agency said Sunday.
The UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation operation, organized in cooperation wi th the governments of both countries, aims to end one of the world's most protra c ted refugee situations.
The refugee agency hopes this year to repatriate some 25,000 of the so-called 19 72 Burundians, from three "old settlements", who have opted to go back home.
The remaining 165,000, most of them born and raised in Tanzania, have opted to s tay.
The first UNHCR return convoy of the year left the Lake Tanganyika town of Kigom a in north-west Tanzania on Wednesday, carrying 473 refugees from Katumba.
They had left the old settlement by train on Tuesday with their personal belongi ngs and livestock.
Some even dismantled their homes and took the construction materials back to Bur undi.
Returnees who talked to UNHCR were glad to be going back home after so many year s.
"I feel relief in my heart, because I am finally back in my home country.
Thi s is what I longed for before I die," 76-year-old Yokoniya Ntabiye told UNHCR aft e r arriving at the Gitara Transit Centre in southern Burundi.
But the refugees also acknowledged the debt they owed Tanzania and the refugee a gency.
"I want to thank the government of Tanzania for treating us all these yea r s with dignity, and not just as refugees," said Phillip Budogero, who was an inf a nt when his parents fled inter-ethnic conflict in Burundi.
"We have benefitted from communal services such as education and health," he add ed.
On arrival at the newly-built Gitara centre, the refugees underwent a medical ch eck and were given an aid package, including cash support, food and household it e ms.
They will be transported to their home communities, said the agency.
But the returnees will face many challenges in Burundi, especially because they left the country so long ago.
Many will face problems reclaiming their land in the small Central African natio n.
For these people, UNHCR provides temporary shelter and supports the peaceful med iation of their land disputes.
As for landless returnees, the Burundian government and UN partners, including U NHCR, will help them settle in integrated "peace villages".
Four of these villag e s have been opened for hundreds of people in recent months.
The returnees arrived shortly after the last active rebel group in Burundi disba nded and converted into a political party.
The three old settlements in western Tanzania - Ulyankulu, Katumba and Mishamo - housed some 220,000 of the 1972 Burundians.
“Last year, more than 30,000 of them returned home after they were given the opt ion of repatriation or local integration,” said UNHCR.
The citizenship applications of those who opted to stay are now under review by the Tanzanian authorities.
The 1972 refugees are different from those who fled from Burundi to Tanzania in the 1990s and for whom UNHCR actively promotes return to Burundi.
Numbering some 40,000, they are hosted at the Mtabila camp in the Kigoma region.
UNHCR has helped some 390,000 Burundian refugees return home from Tanzania since the beginning of its assisted repatriation operations in 2002.
When the assisted and unassisted are counted, totalled, over 470,000 people have returned to Burundi since 2002.