Refugees urge resumption of repatriation to Moba; UNHCR waits

UNHCR has told Congolese refugees anxious to return home from Zambia that it will only resume repatriation operations to Moba on Lake Tanganyika when the UN is able to return to the port town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Congolese refugees in Mwange camp at a meeting with UNHCR officials and visiting members of their government.   © UNHCR/S.Lubuku

MWANGWE CAMP, Zambia, October 8 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has told Congolese refugees anxious to return home from Zambia that it will only resume repatriation operations to Moba on Lake Tanganyika when the UN is able to return to the port town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Hundreds of refugees in northern Zambia's Kala and Mwange camps took advantage of a visit by UNHCR and DRC government officials last Friday to call for a resumption of the programme, which was suspended in early August after a vicious attack on UN premises in Moba. UN agencies are yet to return.

Nsona Vela Do Nascimento, head of the UNHCR delegation, assured the refugees in Zambia that voluntary repatriation to other parts of DRC's Katanga province such as Kalemie and Pweto would resume in the coming days. But repatriation by boat to Moba would have to wait a bit longer.

"As soon as we have authorization from the UN to return to Moba, we will return. We are here today to tell you that we have not abdicated our responsibility to help you return home," Nascimento told hundreds of refugees gathered in and around a thatched pavilion in dusty Mwange camp.

Up to 87 percent of the 43,000 Congolese refugees still living in camps in Zambia are expected to return home to Moba territory.

UN officials briefly visited Moba last week for the first time since UN agencies left the town after demonstrators on August 1 assaulted UN military observers and damaged offices belonging to UNHCR and sister agencies. The local authorities asked UNHCR to return to Moba, saying there was nothing to fear.

Many of the Congolese refugees in Kala and Mwange camps said they regretted that UNHCR could not yet resume returns to Moba. "We are ready to return home. Even if you tell us to go today, we are ready. We had come here expecting to be told the date of the repatriation to Moba," a refugee spokesperson in Mwangwe told the visiting delegations.

Members of the DRC delegation, which also included civil society representatives, urged refugees to be patient. "The forests in our land wait for you, the lakes wait for you, the rivers wait for you," Wembolwa Kasongo, from the DRC's National Commission for Refugees, told refugees at Mwange, adding that their long journey home was almost over.

The refugees asked government officials about arrangements for their reintegration, including job-creation schemes and assistance for the landless. "We are setting aside parcels of land for people who do not have a place to return to," Kasongo said.

Others wanted to know more about the situation in North Kivu province and the action being taken by the DRC government to quell fighting raging in that part of the country, which lies to the north of Katanga.

UNHCR began the assisted repatriation of Congolese refugees from Zambia in May this year and has to date helped more than 5,000 people return to Katanga province by ship and road. To aid their reintegration, UNHCR and partners have supported the formation of nearly 200 self-help groups - mainly in Moba.

A similar number of self-help groups is expected to be formed in Kalemie and Pweto before the end of the year. Eight schools and three health centres in the main areas of return have been rehabilitated. To improve transport access, the refugee agency has rehabilitated about 480 kilometres of road linking Pweto and Moba.

UNHCR has so far this year assisted the voluntary return of some 43,000 Congolese refugees, mainly from neighbouring countries. Another 23,000 are expected to return home before the end of the year.

By Millicent Mutuli in Mwange, Zambia