Trial run paves way for major new repatriation in Africa back to DRC
UVIRA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 14 (UNHCR) - Until this week, Aisha had only vague memories of her native land. At fourteen, she has spent almost half her life in the refugee camp of Lugufu in western Tanzania. This week, after six years in exile, Aisha and her family set foot again on Congolese territory when they disembarked at the port of Baraka in South Kivu province early on Thursday morning.
"Finally," she told UNHCR staff, "I am back in my country. Thank you UNHCR for bringing us back. And thank you to the people of Tanzania for giving us a home for so long."
Aisha and her family were part of a group of 282 Congolese refugees on the first UNHCR-organised convoy from Tanzania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) this week. Their return is part of a trial run ahead of the official start of UNHCR's facilitated repatriation in early November for Congolese refugees in Tanzania - a major new operation that could help up to 150,000 refugees return to eastern DRC.
Aisha's convoy left the camps of Nyarugusu and Lugufu in western Tanzania on Wednesday morning, heading first for the port of Kigoma on the banks of Lake Tanganyika. In Kigoma the refugees boarded the MV Mwongozo, chartered by UNHCR to ferry them across the lake to DRC. The ship left Tanzania on Wednesday evening and reached the Congolese port of Baraka at seven the following morning. Also on board were fifteen refugee representatives on a "Go and See Visit": they will stay in South Kivu for a week before returning to the Tanzanian camps to tell their fellow refugees of their impression of the situation back home.
Their journey was not without its share of drama and logistical challenges. The road to Kigoma was blocked, leading to a three-hour delay in reaching the port, where the refugees found that they had to board not one, but two boats for their crossing of Lake Tanganyika. The water level is very low at the moment, and UNHCR has had to charter a smaller, shallower boat to take the refugees from the jetty to the MV Mwongozo. The ship reached Congolese waters at four in the morning, but passengers had to wait until seven before they could disembark.
Congolese officials and UNHCR staff were with the families who had gathered in Baraka's port to welcome the returning refugees. After many years of separation, emotional scenes broke out as loved ones were reunited. Aisha and her family, along with the rest of the returnees, stayed at the UNHCR transit centre overnight to be registered and organised in groups according to their final destination. This weekend, all will be back in their home villages where they will receive a repatriation package including mattresses and kitchen sets, as well as farming and building tools.
"The start of our voluntary repatriation to eastern DRC is a major development for our work in the region," UNHCR's Chief Spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva on Friday, "more than 150,000 Congolese took refuge in Tanzania after fleeing the violence in South and North Kivu in the past few years and we hope that many will now be able to return."
The operation presents some major logistical challenges, not least of which is the crossing of one of Africa's largest lakes. For security reasons, only 500 people can make the crossing on board the MV Mwongozo at any one time and the current low water level adds to the difficulties. The second boat needed to ferry passengers from the jetty is available only once a week, in effect limiting the number of returns to 500 weekly for the time being.
The decision to start facilitating the voluntary repatriation of Congolese refugees in Tanzania was taken at a Tripartite meeting between UNHCR and the governments of Tanzania and DRC in September. In the past year, more than 15,000 Congolese have repatriated from Tanzania by their own means. The next test convoy is due to leave Tanzania on Wednesday, while the official start of the repatriation is scheduled for the first week of November.