Will Oman welcome home its stateless people in Burundi?

Burundi says they are foreigners, while Oman is hesitant to issue passports for the forgotten children of the once powerful Omani trading empire that criss-crossed the Indian Ocean in the 19th century.

Descendants of Omani immigrants to Burundi at the turn of the 19th century hold neither a Burundian nor Omani passport.
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RUMONGE, Burundi // It was about a century ago when Sultan Salum's ancestors left Oman for the east African spice island of Zanzibar, before setting off westward into the interior for Burundi.

But while the exact date of his forebears's arrival in the small central African nation will never be known, he still does not have proper documents to make him Burundian, and now he wants to go to his ancestral home in the Arabian Gulf.

"What is said in the family, is that our ancestors came from Oman via Zanzibar to Kigoma," Mr Salum said, referring to a town on the eastern Tanzanian shores of Lake Tanganyika. "Finally they landed in Burundi."

Generations have passed, and Sultan Salum, 50, now runs a cafe in the town of Rumonge, about 60 kilometres south of the capital, Bujumbura.

But, like some other 1,200 people of Omani origin living in Burundi, he lives in limbo.

Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, says they are foreigners, while Oman is hesitant to issue passports for the forgotten children of those once part of a powerful Omani trading empire that criss-crossed the Indian Ocean in the 19th century.

"We have neither papers from Oman or Burundi," said Mr Salum. "I want a passport from my home in Oman, to live on the land of our ancestors."

In Bujumbura, the association of stateless Omanis in Burundi defends the rights of the community, and has battled for decades with the authorities in Muscat for passports.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also been looking at their case, although like the Burundian authorities, it says the ethnic Omanis are technically not yet stateless.

"We are trying to solve the problem," said Jean-Bosco Nduwimana, from Burundi's national refugee authority.

UNHCR is creating a profile of the population, which will be presented to both Burundi and Oman to help "resolve the issue amicably", said a UNHCR representative Catherine Huck.

If, after that, no country "issues their papers, they are stateless", she said.

For now, the ethnic Omanis have temporary Burundian papers valid for a year. Before, they often lived with forged documents paid for by gold.

According to historians, their ancestors from Oman arrived in Burundi in the second half of the 19th century, travelling from the Omani-controlled Zanzibar archipelago, searching for slaves and ivory in the interior of Africa.

But slave traders, the historians say, would have been blocked from actually moving into Burundi by the spears and arrows of the warriors of King Mwezi Gisabo, and instead operated from the nearby shores of Lake Tanganyika.

It was only later, after German and then Belgian colonisation, that they would permanently establish themselves as traders in the country.

"A break between the Omanis from Oman and these Omanis, combined with the end of slavery, forced them to become traders and allies of the colonial powers," said Emile Mworoha, a historian.

"They sold cotton, salt, and became intermediaries or agents of the Germans and then the Belgian king," he added.

Those today in Burundi tend to hide any slave trader ancestors, with many saying that their family roots lie in poorer traders who arrived in a second wave in the 1920s.

"At that time, Oman had not yet found oil," said Nassor Mohamed, an ethnic Omani in Bujumbura, speaking in the library of one of the community's mosques, where a plaque commemorates the visit in 2007 by Oman's grand mufti.

In Bujumbura's Asian quarter, those of Omani origin mingle alongside those with ancestors from Yemen or Pakistan. They too have problems with their papers, but do not find not so difficult to obtain passports from their country of origin, says Mr Mohamed.

The Omani community does not understand the resistance of Muscat. In some families, some siblings may have a passport but not others, or parents with documents but not their children. All say they have family in Oman.

In frustration, the community just wants an answer to their origin either way, so that they can move ahead with a decision by Muscat, said Hamed Salim, a computer technician.

As they wait, Bujumbura is working on ratification of international conventions protecting stateless people - even if such a move still hangs on a decision from Oman as to whether it will welcome back its wandering sons and daughters.