In and out of the heart of Africa
UVIRA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, August 9 (UNHCR) - Along the periphery of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country the size of Western Europe, refugees are on the move. Congolese who once sought refuge in neighbouring countries are now returning to relatively stable parts of DRC. And refugees who found shelter in DRC are going back to their homelands.
Some refugees in Africa - like the Angolans who left the Kasangulu area south of Kinshasa last week for Mbanza Congo in Zaire province north of Luanda - have been in exile for 30 years or more. In many African countries, the UN refugee agency's main work is protecting, feeding and housing refugees who have spent decades in refugee camps.
But UNHCR's work in DRC is different. "Repatriations - taking refugees home - are what this operation is all about," says Aida Haile Mariam, UNHCR's Deputy Representative for Operations in DRC. "I think it's one of the most fascinating UNHCR operations in the world."
Indeed, there are many refugee movements underway: to DRC from the Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Tanzania; and from DRC to Rwanda, Burundi, Angola and Sudan.
In Equateur province, in the peaceful north-west of DRC, refugees have been returning home with UNHCR's help from the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Republic of the Congo (ROC). So far this year, some 1,900 have returned from CAR and some 2,500 from ROC. The small numbers belie the considerable logistical challenges of the two operations.
Roads in the region are virtually non-existent, torrential downpours are common, and it can take up to 10 hours to travel a 100-km stretch of road. For these reasons, the refugee agency organised several modes of transport for the refugees - including boats to cross the Ubangui River, trucks to get through thick forests, and planes for areas where precarious airstrips exist but there is no other means of access.
In southern DRC, some 42,000 Angolans have gone home with UNHCR's help since voluntary repatriation began in 2003. Some 22,000 Angolans remain in camps and settlements in DRC, and an estimated 72,000 are living outside those areas, integrated with local residents.
The first of these Angolans living outside the camps and settlements went home from Kasangulu to Mbanza Congo in Zaire province this week, with a total of 2,000 Angolans expected to go home from south of Kinshasa in the next four or five weeks.
Despite having integrated well into DRC over the decades, the Angolans are usually overjoyed to end their exile. "I went on one convoy from Kisenge in the DRC to Luau in Angola where the refugees were singing all the way home, more than 100 km," recalls Haile Mariam.
On the other side of DRC, UNHCR is actively sending workers into the dense forests and remote settlements of North and South Kivu to encourage Rwandans to go back to their own country after 11 years in exile. Some 4,900 have accepted the offer this year, bringing to more than 78,000 the number of Rwandans who have gone home from DRC with UNHCR's help since 2000.
These repatriations are organized by UNHCR, but sometimes it's the refugees themselves who lead the refugee agency. In South Kivu particularly, and along the border with Zambia, Congolese refugees are coming home on their own after years away - and in far greater numbers than in the parts of the country where UNHCR is facilitating return.
"Certainly it will be good for this country if the refugees come home," says Haile Mariam in Kinshasa. "If they come home in large numbers, the country will become more secure and the international community will move in with development projects."
That could only be good news for all of the Great Lakes region, she adds: "The stability of DRC means stability for 10 countries in the region."
The return of more than 10,000 Congolese refugees from camps in Tanzania - on their own, in rickety, unseaworthy boats across huge, deep Lake Tanganyika - has prompted UNHCR to organize trucks for the last leg of the journey to their villages, despite the fact that the agency does not yet view it as safe for them to return.
The refugees themselves are forcing the agency to consider facilitating returns. "Under that description we would still not view circumstances in eastern DRC as conducive to return, and would not encourage refugees to leave their countries of asylum," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told journalists in Geneva last month. "But we would help those who insist on going back by running our own boats, ports and trucks. This issue is still under review."
In villages throughout South Kivu, as they climb down from UNHCR trucks, the Congolese returnees are met by hugs, singing, dancing, claps and shouts of "Hallelujah!" from clearly-thrilled friends and relatives.
"It's a joy to see these people arriving," exclaims one security officer in Fizi town, south of Uvira.
"We are asking for you to make it possible for more people to come home," Josue Mmelelwa, the administrator in charge of Baraka, a small town in Fizi territory south of Uvira, told a UNHCR official recently.
Because of cuts in food rations and services in the camps in Tanzania, "people are suffering over there," he continued. "They need to return to their villages, but we don't have any way to help them. We don't even have transportation. More would come if there were good transportation."
Saidi Kashindi is a 17-year-old who recently came home on his own from a camp in Tanzania because, he says, he wants to contribute towards meeting his country's vast needs.
Despite any hardships he faces, he says it's still better to live in his homeland. And, standing by the side of a narrow, rutted dirt road in Katanga village, Kashindi has a clear plan in mind.
"I would like to go to university," he says. "I would like to become an engineer and build bridges and roads. I want to help my country."
By Kitty McKinsey