Lucy Claridge, MRG’s Head of Law, visits a Batwa community in Burundi and learns that access to justice can seem like a far-flung dream for families struggling to meet their most basic needs. A small group of children peer nervously out at me from behind a clump of trees. Their parents eventually extend their hands, smile shyly and greet me. “Amahoro!” they say – which means hello or, literally, “Peace”, in Kirundi.
I am visiting a Batwa community who live in Mutaho region, central Burundi. Originally forest-dwellers, the Batwa are an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers mainly inhabiting Burundi, Uganda, DRC and Rwanda. Routinely marginalised and discriminated against, the Batwa have been forced to change their way of living due removal of their traditional lands and increased deforestation. Like many Batwa, this particular community has been caught up in a land dispute spanning nearly 40 years.
I arrive in the centre of the village, which consists of a group of around 15 very basic, single room, thatched huts. Our partner organization in Burundi explains that I am here because MRG’s Legal Cases Programme is supporting the community in their attempts to gain back their lands. The women immediately gather round and sing a melodic welcome song and afterwards we discuss their land dispute.
Unlike many Batwa, this particular community has actually had some success. In the 1970s, the local court decided that the disputed area of land belonged, and should be returned, to them. However, the land was never actually given back, and when one of the community elders went back to the court to try and resolve the issue, she was imprisoned for ten years.
In addition to returning the Batwa property, which would rightfully seem to be theirs, the disputed parcel of land could greatly assist the community in providing further means to cultivate crops. Four years ago, MRG’s partner in Burundi, UNIPROBA, decided to take on the issue themselves, lodging a further case in the courts. Yet the case remains stuck in a slow and dysfunctional court system. When I ask if anyone from the community has tried to push forward the issue, I am told that, “Daily life has more pressing issues.” Immediately I understand. With the most basic living conditions, scarce food, ill health, disease, and little or no chance of an education, access to justice rates well below access to food.