Rutana Province, Burundi – Etienne arrived in his village of origin in Burundi on a sunny afternoon in late September from the United Republic of Tanzania where he had lived in exile for nearly seven years. Arriving back to the lush and green hills of Rutana province, he found his house destroyed and his reintegration hindered by communal tensions.
The tensions Etienne experiences in his home province are characteristic of many areas of return in Burundi, as communities and returnees share dwindling resources, including land and livelihoods opportunities. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that more than 200,000 Burundians have been assisted to voluntarily return to their home country from neighbouring countries since 2017. At the same time, Burundi is hosting nearly 80,000 Congolese refugees.
In addition, reconnecting on a social and interpersonal level with their communities of origin, especially after several years of absence, poses challenges to the reintegration of returnees.
After seven years away, Etienne has indeed not found the bonds he had built with his community intact. Tensions and misunderstandings can then arise between members of the host community and returnees, potentially hindering peaceful interactions and the building of mutual trust and respect.
IOM Burundi is implementing activities to foster social cohesion, including sports games as part of efforts to address arising reintegration challenges.
Seven months after his return, Etienne recounts how these activities have allowed members of his community to come together and reconcile.
"I may have a disagreement with my neighbour, but when we come here, we find ourselves together watching the football match and laughing, our differences disappear."
IOM organizes friendly sports competitions such as sack races and football matches to bring together returnees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host community members in groups who work together to practice for the tournaments. On the day of the event, many members of Etienne's community gather to watch the games and competitions and discuss sources of tension in their community, which helps to strengthen cooperation and build mutual trust.
“When a game is on, even if we have a conflict and we come to the game without talking to each other, we find ourselves on the pitch supporting the same team. Our differences may have lasted a week, but because we are together supporting the same team, we build a relationship, forget our differences, and make peace again," explains Etienne, who enjoys participating in these activities.
Sport thus works as a powerful tool to strengthen or create social bonds, and promote the values of peace, solidarity, inclusion, and non-violence. “The socio-cultural activities organized by IOM provide an opportunity for people from all social categories – returnees, IDPs and host community members – to come together to build stronger relations and to engage with each other in a creative, positive and peaceful setting,” noted Alva Fredman Klockar, Project Officer for Transition and Recovery at IOM Burundi.
Around the world, the practice of sport and its values inspires people to break cycles of violence and exclusion and to adopt more sustainable and peaceful relationships. For these reasons, April 6 was declared the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace and has been celebrated annually since 2014. This day is an opportunity to celebrate the power of sport to stimulate social change, community development, to encourage equity and inclusion and to foster peace and understanding between people, communities and nations.