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Namibia/Angola: UNHCR started first airlift

Briefing Notes, 24 September 2004

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 24 September 2004, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Yesterday, Thursday, UNHCR, in a joint operation with IOM, started its first airlift of Angolan refugees from Namibia to Huambo in the central Angolan highlands. This is the first operation of its kind from Namibia to help refugees return to non-bordering provinces in Angola. Some 27 flights are planned to carry back over 4,000 of the 10,000 Angolan refugees currently in Namibia. Poor roads, with broken bridges and mines, make it impossible to return the refugees to the central highlands by any other safe means.

The first 105 returnees were registered and underwent formalities such as customs and immigration at Osire refugee camp in northern Namibia earlier in the week, then on Thursday left the camp early in the morning, travelled by convoy to the capital Windhoek and flew directly from Hosea Kutako International Airport to Huambo. For many of the refugees it was their first flight, but their nervousness was overcome by excitement at the prospect of going home.

UNHCR has also been repatriating Angolans from Namibia by land on convoys to the border provinces of Kuando Kubango and Cunene. Using both land and air routes, we hope to repatriate nearly all Angolan refugees in Namibia this year.

Overall, nearly 24,000 Angolans refugees have returned home this year on UNHCR organised convoys from Namibia (2,615), from DRC (10,834) and from Zambia (10,630). When the 2002 April peace accords were signed, an estimated 441,000 Angolan refugees were estimated to be living in bordering countries. Since then, some 250,000 have returned home leaving about 200,000 Angolans in the major asylum countries of DRC, Zambia, Namibia and the Republic of Congo.

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Forty Years On, Antonio Goes Home to Angola

Antonio has been waiting 40 years to return to his home village in northern Angola. He fled to Democratic Republic of the Congo when the country was a Portuguese colony, and stayed away through years of civil war and during the peace that followed in 2002. Now, no longer classed as a refugee, he is finally going back.

Seated in a rickety chair in his family's rented apartment in Kinshasa on the eve of his departure, the 66-year-old Angolan was excited. "I feel joy when I think that I will go home. It's better to be a citizen of your own country than a refugee in another country. It's liberation," he said, flanked by his wife, sister and granddaughter.

Photographer Brian Sokol followed the four of them as they began their journey in Kinshasa on August 19, taking a seven-hour train journey to the town of Kimpese in Bas-Congo province and then reaching the border by bus. They were among the first group to go back home with the help of UNHCR under a third and final voluntary repatriation programme since 2002. The family faces many new challenges in Angola, but their joy was far greater than any apprehension. "I will dance when we arrive at the border," said Antonio's sister, Maria. UNHCR is organizing the return of nearly 30,000 former refugees to Angola.

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For more than a year, a collection of startling photographs taken by refugee children in Namibia and Yemen has been travelling the world, giving a glimpse into the lives and thoughts of people whose lives have been thrown into turmoil at such a young age.

Professional photographer Brendan Bannon conducted the "Do You See What I See" project for the UN refugee agency in Yemen's Kharaz Refugee Camp and Namibia's Osire Refugee Camp.

He ran a series of intensive two-week photo workshops for a dozen children in each camp. Bannon guided them through a series of exercises that focused on the self, the community, the family and dreams. Here are some of the amazing results.

"What emerges in these pictures is a commentary on humanity - proposing what to them is love, what is suffering, what is funny, what can be discovered about self, family, history and community: What makes us alike and what makes us different," Bannon wrote.

A travelling photo exhibition was put together and has been seen by thousands of people around the world. It is now showing at the United Nations in New York, but the photo exhibition has never been shown on UNHCR's website before.

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