• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Angolans fly home from Botswana as repatriation season closes

News Stories, 9 December 2004

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
A refugee family prepares to board the plane from Botswana back to Huambo in Angola.

DUKWI REFUGEE CAMP, Botswana (UNHCR) For a change, the searing heat of Botswana's north-eastern region isn't the ice-breaker between refugees in Dukwi camp. The recent buzz has been about the 62 Angolan refugees leaving Botswana for Angola under the UNHCR-organised voluntary repatriation programme. They are the first and only group to be leaving Botswana this year before the heavy seasonal rains make this exercise too hazardous to undertake.

On this fine day of December 3, the buoyant mood of the departing adults rubs off on the children who are too young to understand the historic occasion their parents will undoubtedly recount in the years to come. The men, kitted out in shirt and tie, carry impossible weights of luggage on their shoulders. Not to be outdone, the women, most of whom have babies strapped to their backs, carry equally heavy loads on their heads as they make their way to the bus taking them several hundred kilometres to Francistown Airport.

Before long, it is time to bid the camp farewell and there is a good turnout of their countrymen to see them off. A few of the remaining Angolans shed tears of excitement as they anticipate the day they, too, will be leaving Dukwi. Others bemoan the fact that they are not part of the repatriating group, unhappy that they are not returning home in time for Christmas.

"Because of weather constraints in Angola, we cannot transport the entire caseload of Angolans from the camp, although there is an overwhelming desire on their part to return to Angola," says Alice Ballah-Conteh, UNHCR's Acting Head of Mission in Botswana.

This desire was communicated at a meeting held by the Tripartite Commission to respond to the refugees' concerns. The remaining ones were assured of repatriation in 2005 soon after the rains had stopped.

After two hours on the road and a hearty breakfast, the 62 wait patiently for the arrival of the aircraft to fly them to Huambo in central Angola's highlands. The government of Botswana has made available a C-130 Hercules military aircraft, which is still on its way to Francistown from Gaborone, Botswana's capital.

"The refugees who are returning home are from Huambo, Benguela and Bie provinces," says Galefele Beleme, UNHCR's Assistant Programme Officer. "Most are single men and a few families from a rural agriculture-based background."

An agrarian people, the refugees supplemented their food rations and income-generating activities by coaxing the semi-arid soil into yielding whatever vegetables would flourish under the blistering sun. Although UNHCR has provided seeds and tools and sent some of them to attend workshops on improved techniques of farming, their gardens have yielded sparse results.

Beleme says that this is one of the reasons the Angolans are keen to return home.

"There are few rains in this area, so it has been very frustrating for them to work the reluctant soil. With the start of the rainy season in Angola now, it stands to reason that they would want to return home in time to put the land to good use."

As the droning aircraft appears in the sky, the refugees launch into animated conversations to ensure that their luggage hasn't gone astray. Bicycles and ghetto-blasters are handled with the utmost care. A few refugees have bundled up their garden rakes and hoes, which will be crucial to slicing into the pliable soil they have long missed.

After everything is loaded onto the aircraft, it really dawns on many of them that this is their final moment in Botswana. It is an emotional scene as refugees, UNHCR and implementing partner staff bid farewell to each other. Some say that while they would like to see the aid workers again, it would not be as refugees.

As the aircraft taxis down the runway and picks up speed in preparation for take off, the cabin falls silent. Many are wearing expressions of apprehension, having never been on an aircraft before. Children shut their eyes tightly as it takes off. Mothers make an unnecessary fuss around their children, hiding their own fear. The men stare defiantly at each other, silently daring the other to show their unease.

As soon as the flight settles into a smooth pattern, the refugees visibly relax and venture as far as to peer through the plane's windows. It is a three-hour flight and soon enough, the conversations start to flow. One little girl giggles with delight as she and a friend play a game. She hasn't let go of the fistful of her mother's skirt she grabbed when the aircraft took off. She clearly isn't about to do so now.

The aircraft flies into pockets of turbulence, which quickly renders the cabin silent. Undoubtedly, everyone is calling on their God in those moments.

Soon enough we are flying over Angola. As the aircraft makes its descent, exclamations of excitement and joy fill the cabin. Rivulets and tributaries snake their way through the plains towards Huambo, the sun's reflection making them shimmer with life. The vegetation is lush, with various shades of green fauna swaying in the wind.

When the plane eventually touches down on the runway, the returnees break into song, clapping and ululating with joy. They are home at last!

An emotional returnee gets down on his hands and knees and kisses the tarmac, so grateful to be back in his motherland. A flurry of activity ensures that they are welcomed home and led to a shelter to have a late lunch.

En route to the transit centre where the returnees will stay for a few days, maize fields jostle cheek by jowl with uncleared mine fields. Mango trees in the residential compounds groan under the weight of their juicy fruit, guava trees show their ripening fruit and the avocado pears slowly ripening far up the trees, well out of human reach, promise a delicious condiment to any meal.

Huambo Airport and its immediate surroundings bustle with life. There is a determined vigour in the manner in which people go about their business. Some are busy in their fields while others are trading in makeshift markets.

© UNHCR/P.Rulashe
A returning refugee taking last minute messages from relatives still at Dukwi camp, for family in Angola.

I steal a glance at some of the returnees. Though weary from the excitement of the journey, there is unmistakeable joy in their demeanour. While many are still in the process of trying to trace relatives through the Red Cross and other informal means, at least the first hurdle, returning home in safety and dignity, has been overcome.

As UNHCR Botswana staff who had accompanied them home prepare to return to the awaiting aircraft, it is an emotional farewell, but one which brings tears of joy to both the returnees and the aid workers.

By Pumla Rulashe in Botswana and Angola

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Repatriation

UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Return to Swat Valley

Thousands of displaced Pakistanis board buses and trucks to return home, but many remain in camps for fear of being displaced again.

Thousands of families displaced by violence in north-west Pakistan's Swat Valley and surrounding areas are returning home under a government-sponsored repatriation programme. Most cited positive reports about the security situation in their home areas as well as the unbearable heat in the camps as key factors behind their decision to return. At the same time, many people are not yet ready to go back home. They worry about their safety and the lack of access to basic services and food back in Swat. Others, whose homes were destroyed during the conflict, are worried about finding accommodation. UNHCR continues to monitor people's willingness to return home while advocating for returns to take place in safety and dignity. The UN refugee agency will provide support for the transport of vulnerable people wishing to return, and continue to distribute relief items to the displaced while assessing the emergency shelter needs of returnees. More than 2 million people have been displaced since early May in north-west Pakistan. Some 260,000 found shelter in camps, but the vast majority have been staying with host families or in rented homes or school buildings.

Return to Swat Valley

Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

The UN refugee agency has successfully completed the voluntary repatriation of 38 Tanzanian refugees from Zanzibar who had been residing in the Somalia capital, Mogadishu, for more than a decade. The group, comprising 12 families, was flown on two special UNHCR-chartered flights from Mogadishu to Zanzibar on July 6, 2012. From there, seven families were accompanied back to their home villages on Pemba Island, while five families opted to remain and restart their lives on the main Zanzibar island of Unguja. The heads of households were young men when they left Zanzibar in January 2001, fleeing riots and violence following the October 2000 elections there. They were among 2,000 refugees who fled from the Tanzanian island of Pemba. The remainder of the Tanzanian refugee community in Mogadishu, about 70 people, will wait and see how the situation unfolds for those who went back before making a final decision on their return.

Tanzanian refugees return to Zanzibar

UNHCR resumes return operation for 43,000 Angolans in DR Congo

The UN refugee agency has resumed a voluntary repatriation programme for Angolan refugees living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Some 43,000 Angolans have said they want to go back home under a project that was suspended four years ago for various reasons. A first group of 252 Angolan civilians left the UNHCR transit centre in the western DRC town of Kimpese on November 4, 2011 They crossed the border a few hours later and were warmly welcomed by officials and locals in Mbanza Congo. In the first two weeks of the repatriation operation, more than 1,000 Angolan refugees returned home from the DRC provinces of Bas-Congo in the west and Katanga in the south. Out of some 113,000 Angolan refugees living in neighbouring countries, 80,000 are hosted by the DRC.

UNHCR resumes return operation for 43,000 Angolans in DR Congo

South Sudan: No Home To Return ToPlay video

South Sudan: No Home To Return To

Philip and his family fled from their home in the South Sudan town of Bor last December and found shelter in the capital, Juba. Recently they decided to return home, despite the risks. It took three arduous days to get back, but then they got there they found that their home had been destroyed.
Almost Home Play video

Almost Home

Former Angolan refugees, in exile for as many as three decades, are given the opportunity to locally integrate in neighboring Zambia with the help of UNHCR and the Zambian Government.
Mali: Waiting to ReturnPlay video

Mali: Waiting to Return

After spending months in the central Mali town of Mopti, hundreds of displaced families are anxious to go back to their homes in the north. But security is still a concern.