UNHCR resumes return operation for displaced in northern DRC

News Stories, 21 July 2008

© UNHCR/C.Sani
Displaced people prepare to go back home to Ituri with UNHCR last year, before the operation was suspended for security reasons.

ITURI DISTRICT, Democratic Republic of the Congo, July 21 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Monday resumed the assisted return of displaced Congolese to their homes in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) seven months after suspending the operation for security reasons.

Five boats chartered by UNHCR ferried the first group of 712 people from a settlement for internally displaced people (IDPs) at Tchomia across Lake Albert to the town of Gobu in the Ituri district of DRC's Orientale province. A further 1,800 IDPs are expected to return by this route in coming weeks.

Those leaving for Gobu on Monday seemed delighted to finally be going back home. "Now, I can have a real roof and not live any more under plastic sheeting", one 52-year-old returnee told a UNHCR protection officer.

UNHCR was also scheduled to resume on Monday another IDP return operation in the province. The refugee agency hopes to assist the return of almost 7,000 people from Beni and Eringhety to Komanda and the Ituri capital, Bunia, starting with a first group of 220 people.

Some 3,000 IDPs have returned home under this operation, which was suspended by UNHCR in December for security reasons.

Return operations to the Ituri region were launched last year but halted in December due to clashes between rebel fighters and troops of the DRC armed forces, which also threatened the reintegration and recovery processes in the district.

The return of those on Monday's ferry journeys has been made possible by a considerable improvement in the security situation. UNHCR now plans to wrap up the assisted return programme by the end of this year.

Some 600,000 displaced Congolese remain in the Ituri region, living in settlements or with host families. Many fled their homes during the DRC's wider civil war between 1996 and 2002, which left 50,000 civilians in Ituri dead, while thousands more left their homes when inter-ethnic clashes erupted in 2003 all over the district.

UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies are now in a recovery and reintegration phase, helping to reconstruct homes, schools and health centres and providing seeds and agricultural tools to farmers in Ituri. "The district now has more schools, more health centres, and business activities are resuming," said a local in Komanda.

The UN refugee agency also supports income-generating activities such as carpentry, sewing and small-scale trading. Particular attention is given to the most vulnerable IDPs, including widows and orphans.

Those retuning on Monday were each given a return package that included blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting and construction tools. They are also received food aid from the World Food Programme and agricultural assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organization.

But some are likely to face land disputes when they get home a problem throughout DRC for returnees, including refugees and IDPs. UNHCR is involved in dispute resolution mechanisms aimed at alleviating the problem.

Despite sporadic outbreaks of violence in the Ituri region, significant progress has been made since 2004 to restore lasting peace and to disarm and demobilize rival military forces and reintegrate fighters into society.