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