More than 1,500 Congolese brave tough journey home
MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nov 26 (UNHCR) - Some 1,500 Congolese refugees have braved the tough journey home from the Central African Republic (CAR) to north-western Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the last month on boats, trucks and on foot. But in the remotest parts of Equateur province, where roads are non-existent and the rivers impossible to navigate, the only means of transport possible to repatriate the refugees is by air.
The UN refugee agency organised the first airlift to Equateur province on Wednesday, for a group of 95 refugees going back home to Mbandaka town. The flight left from the CAR capital, Bangui, and returnee Mobissi Mama Awblakate heaved a sigh of relief when the plane made its descent over the Congo River towards Mbandaka. She and her four children decided to leave Molangue refugee camp in CAR when they heard that conditions had improved in Equateur province, and now at last they were home.
Awblakate's return package included the transfer from Molangue camp to Bangui airport, and the flight to Mbandaka. But starting a new life will not be easy, and upon arrival, the UN refugee agency provided her family with mats, blankets, basic household items and enough food for three months to help out.
There are some 12,000 refugees from DRC in neighbouring CAR, a quarter of them staying in Molangue camp. A total of 1,507 refugees from Molangue have gone back to Equateur province in north-western DRC since UNHCR started assisting returns from CAR on October 21. UNHCR plans to repatriate another 750 Congolese from CAR before the end of the year, at the rate of about 100 refugees per trip.
The return operation has met enormous logistical challenges in the dense rainforest of north-western DRC. With hardly any bitumen or gravelling, the roads turn into rivers after every downpour during the current rainy season. In addition, many Congolese refugees in CAR have to cross at least two broad rivers - the Oubangui and the Congo - to get home.
"As we started the operation, we soon realised that simply organising return convoys would not be enough," says Geoffrey Wordley, who leads UNHCR's emergency team to assist returns from Molangue camp. "There are potholes so deep that a four-wheel drive has difficulty passing, let alone a truck carrying people. The rivers in the area are seldom spanned with bridges. It takes us three days to travel the 200 km from Molangue camp to Gemena town in the DRC, from where many refugees originate."
Instead, Wordley and his team arranged for a barge to carry the returnees across the Oubangui River separating the two countries. Three times a week for the past month, UNHCR organised such crossings for refugees going back to Libenge and Gemena. The team is now planning several other airlifts for refugees like Awblakat who are returning to the remote areas of Mbandaka and Gbadolite.
Most of the 12,000 Congolese refugees in CAR want to return home, but the situation in some parts of DRC remains volatile, and for the time being UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme extends only to the north-western province of Equateur, which is considered safe for return.
In the next phase of return to Equateur province, scheduled for early 2005, UNHCR will repatriate some of the more than 58,000 Congolese refugees hosted in the Republic of Congo.
By Jens Hesemann in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo