UNHCR launches overland returns from Zambia to Moba in DRC

The UN refugee agency's repatriation operation to Moba in south-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo was expanded this week with the launch of road returns from Zambia.

Congolese returnees arrive in Moba earlier this month from Zambia.   © UNHCR/G.Kilemba

MOBA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, May 14 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency's repatriation operation to Moba in south-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo was expanded this week with the launch of road returns from Zambia.

The convoy carrying 357 Congolese returnees from Kala and Mwange camps in northern Zambia arrived in Moba on Lake Tanganyika on Tuesday evening after two days on the road. It was the first land convoy organized by UNHCR to Moba since the launch of the repatriation programme in May last year.

The operation has previously brought people back to Moba by boat across the lake, but it was suspended last August when UN aid workers were evacuated from the town in Katanga province after a vicious attack on UN offices there.

The refugee agency briefly resumed ferry returns across the lake last December amid an improved security situation before the rainy season set in. The first boat returns of this year began last week and UNHCR has since brought back some 1,200 refugees from Mpulungu port in Zambia.

"The restoration of a climate of peace and security will definitely allow more Congolese refugees to return home and help in the reconstruction of their country," said Eusebe Hounsokou, UNHCR's Kinshasa-based regional representative.

UNHCR plans to organize around 35 returns by boat and seven overland convoys between now and December to repatriate some 20,000 refugees who want to go back home to the Moba area from northern Zambia's camps.

More than 64,000 Congolese fled to Zambia during the 1998-2003 civil war and some 55,000 remain in the country. UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme has brought back about 9,000 refugees to date.

UNHCR and the Zambian government in late April this year conducted an awareness campaign about the situation in Moba for refugees planning to return home from the Kala and Mwange camps.

Tuesday's arrivals were due to be transported to their places of origin on Wednesday after attending awareness sessions on issues such as anti-personnel and mines and HIV/AIDS as well as receiving assistance packages to help them get started. This includes food for three months and a variety of non-food items, seeds and farming tools, shelter materials and, if needed, medicine.

"I know life back home will be tough, but I have to start afresh," said a 43-year-old returnee on Tuesday's convoy, who fled Katanga province eight years ago and was returning alone after the death of her husband in exile.

"When we escaped we left everything at home, even our animals, but we are ready to return and rebuild our lives with the support of our brothers and sisters" added another returnee, who was going back with his wife and five children.

To ease the reintegration of the refugees, UNHCR and its partners have supported the formation of self-help groups - mainly in Moba. These receive training in skills such as carpentry, tailoring, masonry and credit management. Schools and health centres in the main areas of return have been rehabilitated, while UNHCR has repaired about 12 kilometres of road in and around Moba.

UNHCR uses a community-based approach in its reintegration efforts. "It is important to involve the community, to listen to them and evaluate their needs in order to better help them to be self-empowered and find a place in society," said Philippe Creppy, head of UNHCR's Moba office.

"UNHCR will work strenuously with the government, the International Organization for Migration [IOM] and implementing partners to ensure that there are steady, expeditious and regular repatriation convoys to Congo in accordance with set international standards," Creppy added.

The Moba repatriation operation has received substantial funding support from the US government and ECHO, humanitarian aid branch of the European Commission. There are an estimated 1.3 million Congolese displaced within the vast country and some 350,000 Congolese refugees outside.

By Francesca Fontanini in Moba, Democratic Republic of the Congo