Angola Repatriation: Antonio returns home after 40 years in DR Congo

News Stories, 28 August 2014

© UNHCR/B.Sokol
Antonio waits to have his documents checked by Angolan authorities before crossing the nearby border some 40 years after he fled from his country.

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, August 28 (UNHCR) When Antonio last stood in his home village of Kwilu, Angola was a colony of Portugal on the verge of becoming independent.

A last flourish of fighting in the final weeks of colonialism, forced him to escape across the nearby border to Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). "Everyone was fleeing," he recalled, adding: "I fled without my parents and met them later again in Congo." That was 40 years ago, but as the independence struggle was followed by civil war, he kept on delaying his return from exile in the DRC.

Now, 12 years after the end of the civil war and two years after Angolans in the DRC and other countries lost their refugee status because of the improved conditions back home, he is finally ready to go back under a third and final voluntary repatriation programme organized by UNHCR. Not having a job has been a factor, while many taking part realize this is their last chance to get help in going back.

He is full of patriotism, feeling that his country has turned a corner. "I feel joy when I think that I will go home. It's better to be a citizen of your country than a refugee in another country," the 66-year-old said. "It is liberation. My origins are in Angola. My ancestors are born there. It's better to go back."

Antonio is one of 30,000 former refugees across the Democratic Republic of the Congo who have opted for return to Angola. Earlier this month, he was among a first group of more than 400 Angolans to return, kicking off an operation to finally end one of Africa's most protracted refugee situations. Others will be returning from Katanga province while 18,000 wish to remain and are in the process of local integration.

The day before heading off on the first leg of the journey home, a seven-hour train ride to the town of Kimpese in DRC's Bas-Congo province, Antonio spoke to UNHCR in his empty living room in Kinshasa with his wife, sister and granddaughter, who were all returning.

Their luggage, including several suitcases, plastic containers and a mattress, was packed and they were ready to start their journey back to their home in northern Angola's Uige province, one of the hardest-hit areas during the 1975-2002 civil war. The family had given the rest of their belongings to neighbours and relatives staying in the DRC.

Antonio said that when they reached the border by bus from Kimpese, he planned to first stay with an uncle in a Uige province village before returning to Kwilu. "The first thing I will have to do once home is to look for a house. I will also look for a job," he said, echoing many other returnees who cannot return to their old homes after so long.

The returnees will also need help to kickstart their lives. The Angolan government has agreed to help the returnees reintegrate.

An estimated 550,000 people fled Angola during the 14-year struggle for independence and the ensuing civil war. While most former Angolan refugees have returned since 2002, some 73,000 remain in exile, including those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most of whom will now go home with UNHCR help over the next few months.

Like Antonio, most are aware of the challenges but want to contribute to the continuing growth of their resource-rich country, which has enjoyed healthy economic growth since 2002, but also continues to face major social and economic problems.

"I will work for my country," insisted Antonio, who worked for a textiles company in Kinshasa before offering his services as a glazier. He acknowledged that he would need help to start with. "The state will understand us and help us in terms of housing and material assistance," he said.

His wife Albertine was looking forward most to being reunited with family members who have returned, including her elderly parents. "I have been willing to go back to my country for a long time," she revealed.

Her sister Maria, meanwhile, made a pledge before heading back to her homeland. "I will dance when we arrive at the border," she said. Eleven-year-old Faria, who was born in the DRC and whose mother died in exile, was looking forward to meeting her great grandparents and studying. "I want to become a doctor because my uncle and my aunt [in Angola] are doctors. There are many doctors in my family," she told UNHCR.

By Céline Schmitt in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo




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.

Forty Years On, Antonio Goes Home to Angola


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

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

As a massive food distribution gets underway in six UNHCR-run camps for tens of thousands of internally displaced Congolese in North Kivu, the UN refugee agency continues to hand out desperately needed shelter and household items.

A four-truck UNHCR convoy carrying 33 tonnes of various aid items, including plastic sheeting, blankets, kitchen sets and jerry cans crossed Wednesday from Rwanda into Goma, the capital of the conflict-hit province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The aid, from regional emergency stockpiles in Tanzania, was scheduled for immediate distribution. The supplies arrived in Goma as the World Food Programme (WFP), with assistance from UNHCR, began distributing food to some 135,000 displaced people in the six camps run by the refugee agency near Goma.

More than 250,000 people have been displaced since the fighting resumed in August in North Kivu. Estimates are that there are now more than 1.3 million displaced people in this province alone.

Posted on 6 November 2008

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

Since 2006, renewed conflict and general insecurity in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province has forced some 400,000 people to flee their homes – the country's worst displacement crisis since the formal end of the civil war in 2003. In total, there are now some 800,000 people displaced in the province, including those uprooted by previous conflicts.

Hope for the future was raised in January 2008 when the DRC government and rival armed factions signed a peace accord. But the situation remains tense in North Kivu and tens of thousands of people still need help. UNHCR has opened sites for internally displaced people (IDPs) and distributed assistance such as blankets, plastic sheets, soap, jerry cans, firewood and other items to the four camps in the region. Relief items have also been delivered to some of the makeshift sites that have sprung up.

UNHCR staff have been engaged in protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs and other populations at risk across North Kivu.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Posted on 28 May 2008

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Fighting rages on in various parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with seemingly no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of Congolese forced to flee violence and instability over the past two years. The ebb and flow of conflict has left many people constantly on the move, while many families have been separated. At least 1 million people are displaced in North Kivu, the hardest hit province. After years of conflict, more than 1,000 people still die every day - mostly of hunger and treatable diseases. In some areas, two out of three women have been raped. Abductions persist and children are forcefully recruited to fight. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have increased as the situation deteriorates and humanitarian agencies struggle to respond to the needs of the displaced.

When the displacement crisis worsened in North Kivu in 2007, the UN refugee agency sent emergency teams to the area and set up operations in several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Assistance efforts have also included registering displaced people and distributing non-food aid. UNHCR carries out protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs in North and South Kivu.

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

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