UNHCR helps Congolese refugees return home across Lake Tanganyika

News Stories, 5 September 2008

© UNHCR/M.Luchtmeijer
The MV Mwongozo in Kigoma port.

KIGOMA, Tanzania, September 5 (UNHCR) Growing numbers of Congolese refugees like Kashindi Iddi are opting to head home from Tanzania as the situation eases in their home province of South Kivu across Lake Tanganyika.

"In 1998, I fled my home town of Matongo because of the war in South Kivu. Today, I'm returning with my wife and three children," Iddi, holding his two-year-old son by the hand, said as he waited to board a UNHCR-charted ferry at the port of Kigoma.

He and his family will face many tough challenges as they adjust to their new life in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo after 10 years in a Tanzanian refugee camp. The region's infrastructure and services are in a poor state after years of war, which only formally ended in 2003. Security remains a problem.

Iddi's children have known no other home than Tanzania. They were all born in Lugufu Refugee Camp, one of two remaining camps hosting Congolese refugees in north-west Tanzania's border region of Kigoma.

At this time of the year, the camp schools are closed and the refugees have finished harvesting their crops on the small camp plots. At the same time, more and more refugees have been showing up in recent weeks to register for voluntary repatriation to the DRC.

UNHCR currently organizes two sailings a week from Kigoma to the DRC port of Baraka on the MV Mwongozo, which takes refugees and their belongings. Upon arrival, the returnees receive an assistance package put together by UNHCR and its partners, including the World Food Programme. The aid includes household items, a mosquito net, agricultural tools, food for three months and a shelter kit.

"The UN refugee agency in the DRC further supports the returnees' reintegration through the renovation of infrastructure including schools and health clinics the promotion of income-generating activities and support to solve land issues," explained Marie-Christine Bocoum, deputy director of UNHCR's Africa Bureau, during a recent visit to Kigoma to wave off refugees.

Most of the Congolese refugees in Tanzanian camps come from the towns of Fizi and Uvira or surrounding areas. These areas are considered fairly stable today, but life for the returnees will still be more of a challenge than in the camps.

Despite the problems and the strain put on the meagre resources and services that do exist, local officials warmly welcome the return of their compatriots. South Kivu Governor Chirimwami Muderhwa, during a recent visit to the Tanzanian camps, said the reintegration of returnees was crucial to consolidate the fragile peace in his border province.

"We government authorities welcome you back and will support your reintegration," he said adding: "We have improved access to health care: more clinics and health personnel are available than was the case before the war. Extra schools are being built with the help of UNHCR and primary education is free of charge."

Iddi was well aware of the obstacles ahead, but believed that he had made the right decision. "I want my children to grow up in the DRC. I know it won't be easy to rebuild my life, but I'm not afraid to return," he said before boarding the Mwongozo. "I thank Tanzania and UNHCR for all they have done for me. Back in South Kivu, I hope to make a living as a carpenter, using the skills I was taught in Lugufu camp."

UNHCR began facilitating the repatriation of Congolese refugees from Tanzanian camps in October 2005. To date, the refugee agency has helped more than 53,000 Congolese return home, while slightly less than 90,000 remain in the two camps in the Kigoma region.

By Eveline Wolfcarius in Kigoma, Tanzania