Sudanese refugees in Central African Republic start returning home
TAMBURA, Sudan, Feb 2 (UNHCR) - After almost two decades in exile, 50 Sudanese refugees flew home on Thursday from the Central African Republic, the first of thousands whom the UN refugee agency expects to help repatriate from CAR during 2006 and 2007.
The first group, Sudanese refugees from Mboki camp in CAR, travelled by air to Tambura in the Western Equatoria region of South Sudan. The inaugural flight, organised by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), followed the signing on Wednesday of a tripartite agreement between CAR, Sudan and UNHCR setting the legal framework for voluntary repatriation.
The refugees arrived "home" in Tambura on Thursday morning, more that 16 years after they fled to neighbouring CAR to escape the devastating war in South Sudan.
"I am happy to be back here after so many years in exile," said 42 year-old Calisto Nzeme, part of the first returning group. "I am nearly fainting with happiness. When we see everyone welcoming us, we really feel we are back at home. And even if we are going to be hungry here, have no food, we will be happy because we are finally at home."
Returnees met family members and friends they had not seen for years and were warmly welcomed by Tambura authorities. "War is over; all Sudanese who are abroad are welcomed back," said John Abdhallah, the county representative of the government in Tambura.
The challenge for returnees will be to help rebuild their country as 21 years of civil war have left the region with very little infrastructure and frozen development. There are only 14 kilometres of tarmac road in all of South Sudan, school buildings have been destroyed and health services are rare. Some areas are still heavily mined. Despite the challenges, refugees are eager to return and authorities are more than ready to welcome them.
"We will not rest until the last one of our people is back home," the representative of the SRRC (Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Commission - the humanitarian wing of former rebel movement Sudanese People's Liberation Army) said at the welcoming ceremony.
Most of the Sudanese refugees arrived in CAR in the 1990s and settled in Mboki, 200 km from the border with Sudan, where an estimated 12,000 now live. An additional 4,000 Sudanese refugees live in the Kaga Bandoro area, as well as in urban areas, mainly in Bangui.
"We thank the Central African government and people for having generously welcomed Sudanese refugees over more than 15 years," Jean Marie Fakhouri, UNHCR director for the Sudan operation, said at the signing of the tripartite agreement in Bangui on Wednesday.
"The people of CAR - one of the poorest countries in the world - did not hesitate to share their scarce resources with the refugees when they first arrived in their country," said Fakhouri.
The agreement sets the legal framework for the voluntary repatriation of South Sudan refugees from CAR. The agreement is in line with the multiple and continuing peace efforts undertaken since the Comprehensive Peace Agreements for South Sudan was signed in Nairobi on January 9, 2005.
Similar accords were signed last month for the voluntary repatriation of South Sudanese refugees from Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Additional agreements are to follow with other neighbouring countries hosting Sudanese refugees.
UNHCR and IOM plan to fly a first group of 5,000 refugees from Mboki to the South Sudan region of Western Equatoria over a period of three month. The majority of the returns will take place to Tambura and Yambio areas.
"The remaining refugees will be repatriated in the following months and, in principle, the operation should be completed by the end of 2007," said Fakhouri.
There are an estimated 350,000 South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries, while more than 4 million people remain displaced within Sudan itself.
By Mans Nyberg in Tambura, South Sudan