Congo's exiles start journey home

A first group of refugees have flown home from the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, some of them for the first time in nearly seven years. Their return sets the stage for UNHCR to launch a major repatriation operation for Congolese refugees in the region.

  © UNHCR/Geographic Information and Mapping Unit

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dec 17 (UNHCR) - When they fled their homeland in 1997, their country was called Zaire and their leader, Mobutu Sese Seko. But after nearly seven years of exile in neighbouring Central African Republic, a first group of 298 Congolese refugees have flown home to their country, a vast nation emerging from a bitter war and now renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or simply DRC.

On Tuesday afternoon, the excited group of returnees landed to an emotional homecoming at Ndjili international airport in the DRC capital, Kinshasa. Many could not hide their emotions as they stepped off the plane chartered by the UN refugee agency to fly them from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. As they were ushered into a waiting room at the airport to the welcome of government officials, the returnees broke into song lamenting their lives in exile.

Some of them wore T-shirts with the words, "Merci Président Joseph Kabila", in reference to the current Congolese leader.

The mayor of Kinshasa, Nku Imbie, was among the welcome committee to receive his compatriots who had been forced to leave their homes as successive waves of conflict steadily engulfed and fractured the sprawling nation.

"We have peace and unity," Imbie told the returnees. "All those who are still in exile should return because now there is peace. We are appealing to our compatriots who think that the war is not yet over, to return home to help rebuild our nation."

David Kapya, UNHCR's Representative in the DRC, and other staff of the refugee agency joined Congolese officials in welcoming the returnees. Greeting them individually as the group disembarked from the aircraft, Kapya described it as "a very happy day", adding that the return of the Congolese refugees was the best solution.

Tuesday's repatriation is the first significant repatriation of Congolese refugees to be organised by the UN refugee agency since the installation of a transitional government in Kinshasa under a peace deal brokered and signed in April this year.

The return of this first group from Bangui sets the stage for the launch of a major operation being planned by UNHCR to aid the repatriation of more than 432,000 Congolese refugees in regional countries. The agency expects to assist the refugees to return home in phases, beginning with areas such as Katanga and Equateur that are relatively stable.

The largest number of Congolese refugees is in neighbouring Tanzania (149,000). Others are in Zambia (54,000), the Republic of Congo (85,000) and the Central African Republic (10,000).

Central African government representatives bidding farewell to Congolese refugees in Bangui.  © UNHCR Bangui

More than 1,000 refugees in the Central African Republic have signed up for repatriation to the DRC. Many of them have requested UNHCR's assistance to return to Equateur province, which borders the Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

But first the refugee agency must sign a tripartite agreement with the two governments in Kinshasa and Bangui. A tripartite agreement will outline the legal framework for return and detail the necessary procedures for the repatriation of subsequent groups of refugees.

The Central African Republic is home to some 10,000 refugees. An estimated 7,000 of them have spontaneously settled in urban areas such as Bangui while 3,000 others are being cared for in Molangue, a former coffee plantation that was turned into a refugee camp, some 150 km south-east of Bangui. Many of those who have signed up for return are currently in Molangue camp.