For the first time since 2015, Rwandan and Burundian military officials have met publicly to discuss and find common ground on the longstanding tensions that have affected security, trade and movement along their border.
Delegations of army intelligence officers from both countries met at the Nemba border town on Wednesday, facilitated by Col Leon Mahoungou of the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism, a regional military framework under the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).
Relations between Rwanda and Burundi turned sour in 2015 when Rwandan President Paul Kagame criticised his counterpart, Pierre Nkurunziza, for doing little to stop the violence that was sparked by his presidential bid for a third term. Nkurunziza died on June 9, 2020, at the age of 55 and was succeeded by Evariste Ndayishimiye.
Movement and trade along the common border of the two countries have been limited, a far cry from the years prior to 2015.
The military chiefs meeting follows President Kagame's first public message to condole Burundians following the death of Nkurunziza which was seen as an olive branch to the new Ndayishimiye's government.
The Rwanda Defence Force delegation is led by Brigadier General Vincent Nyakarundi, the head of military intelligence, while his counterpart Col Ernest Musaba leads the Burundi team.
The two sides are also expected to discuss the Burundian refugee situation after both countries earlier this month accused each other of exploiting refugees as political pawns.
On Thursday, up to between 500 and 700 Burundian refugees in Rwanda are expected to return home.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) told The EastAfrican that most of the returning refugees include many who previously issued a petition pleading with President Ndayishimiye to facilitate their safe return.
“In the coming weeks we might observe a growing number of Burundian refugees who voluntarily express the desire to return home,” Elise Villechalane, the UNHCR Rwanda External Relations Officer told The EastAfrican.
Rwanda hosts about 320,000 Burundian refugees as of May 31, who fled since April 2015, as well as some 37,000 other Burundian refugees who sought asylum prior to April 2015, according to UNHCR figures.
Tensions between the two countries escalated further in June, after about 100 gunmen from Burundi attacked a Rwanda Defense Force position in the south, a kilometre inside Rwandan territory.
The Rwandan military said it sought answers from Burundi after four of the unidentified gunmen were killed and the rest retreated to Burundi. The military weapons captured, they said, were branded to belong to the Burundian army.
Burundi in its response said it “cannot be a sanctuary” for armed elements disturbing the security of neighbouring countries.
The meeting between the intelligence officials now serves as an olive branch and as a symbol of intentions by both countries to end the tensions. Authorities said a joint statement would be released after the talks.