RUYIGI, BURUNDI — When Maria Saganga grasped her children's hands tight in hers and fled – with only the clothes they were wearing that day in 1993 – up over the highland hills of central Africa to the safety of Tanzania, she thought she'd never see her homeland again.
She is, after all, a Hutu in a country where some 300,000 Hutus and Tutsis were killed during rolling spasms of ethnic violence between 1993 and 2005.
Yet today, Mrs. Saganga, her husband, and her five children are living right back on the plot they fled from – with its views of the surrounding verdant valley.
Saganga – and thousands of other refugees around Africa – are coming home. The reason: The number of major conflicts on the continent (three) is at its lowest level in the post-cold-war period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks conflict worldwide. So, with tenuous peace breaking out in Burundi and elsewhere, many families are venturing back.
"It's always the best to be in one's own country," Saganga says, as her children and two baby goats play nearby.
Across Africa, 281,400 refugees returned home in 2005, according to the United Nations. Burundi had one of the biggest influxes, with 68,300. Liberia had the biggest, 70,300. Angola had 52,800. It's part of a long-term trend. Over the past decade, the number of refugees in Africa dropped roughly by half, the UN says, from 5,456,438 in 1995 to 2,767,700 in 2005. This does not include people who had fled their homes but stayed in their home countries.
Not that returning is easy.
When Saganga and her husband arrived back in Burundi in 2005 – the year a peace and power-sharing deal was struck between long-warring parties – they discovered a huckster had fraudulently sold their land. Fortunately, the conned buyer didn't lay claim.
And they've had to rebuild. So far they've built one mud-brick house and a small thatched-roof shack that will eventually be a kitchen for the second house they're now building. Saganga and her son work long hours each day to make the 1,200 bricks needed for the new house. The bricks dry in the sun for a month before they're ready.
Saganga has been helped by neighbors – and the UN, which provided wood beams and plastic roof-sheeting for the first house.
In all, about 299,000 people who fled Burundi's crisis have returned since 2002, the UN says. They're now rebuilding houses, flooding into schools, replanting fields and rice paddies, and restarting interrupted lives.
Looking around at her homestead, Saganga says simply, "I never thought I would come back."