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UNHCR closes second season of Angolan returns; boosts assistance in return areas

UNHCR closes second season of Angolan returns; boosts assistance in return areas

As the UN refugee agency winds down its second season of assisted repatriation to Angola, earlier returnees have shared their experiences with UNHCR staff, telling them that coming home is only the beginning of the long and sometimes arduous process of reintegration.
14 December 2004
Returnee Angelina Barbosa (with her youngest daughter) cooks lunch for the family in front of their house in Luena, Angola.

LUENA, Angola, Dec 14 (UNHCR) - As the onset of rain forces the UN refugee agency to wind down its second season of assisted repatriation to Angola, earlier returnees have shared their experiences with UNHCR staff, telling them that coming home is only the beginning of the long and sometimes arduous process of reintegration.

The organised return operation to Angola, which started last year and ran from May to December this year, has helped 172,000 Angolan refugees to return home from the region since the Luena peace accords were signed in April 2002. Another 109,000 have gone back by their own means.

Among these "spontaneous" returnees is Angelina Barbosa, one of the first to return after the end of Angola's 27-year civil war. "They call us Zambianos, but I am Angolan. I was born here. Being a returnee is not easy but I am happy. This is my home," says Barbosa in front of her house in Luena.

She fled to Meheba camp in Zambia in 1976. When the fighting ended in 2002, she and her husband did not have the patience to wait for organised repatriation. Together with their seven children, they returned to Luena in eastern Angola, on their own and started rebuilding their lives without assistance.

It is a hard life they returned to. Barbosa's husband is a carpenter, but there is no regular job to be had in this poor region. So he helps out here and there, produces woodwork, takes on casual jobs. He has at least managed to build a house for the family on the allocated piece of land and they grow some vegetables in the garden. The maize meal she is cooking in front of the house will go well with a stew of homegrown greens.

Barbosa is a trained nursery school teacher, but there are no pre-schools in her suburb. She has thought of starting one herself, some sort of social project, but poverty gets in her way. So far she has been unable to obtain her official teaching licence because she has to pay 380 kwanzas ($6.65) for it. "I do not have the money. We need each kwanza for survival," she says.

Many returnees feel unwelcome in Angola. Discrimination against returnees is quite a common phenomenon in many repatriation operations. Those who stayed behind tend to be wary of returning exiles, suspecting that the refugees had some sort of blissful life abroad while they themselves had to suffer war and desperation.

Those "lucky" returnees are not so lucky after all. Once back in Angola, they face the poverty and insecurity of a post-war situation with its lack of food, money and jobs. The local population is often prejudiced.

Sobas are the traditional local leaders who have the authority to allocate tribal land. Sometimes they give small and bad plots to the newcomers, saving the good land for locals. Moreover, agricultural lands are still heavily mined in many parts of Angola.

Returning children and young people often do not speak Portuguese as their tuition was in English in Zambia or in French in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They need to learn the official language of their country if they want to integrate.

UNHCR is aware of potential tensions between the returnee and local communities, and tailors its reintegration and rehabilitation programmes accordingly. If post-repatriation assistance was offered only for returning individuals, it would only widen the gap between the two groups.

Annette Nyekan, Deputy Representative of UNHCR in Angola, says that the repatriation operation has entered a new stage. It is not the number of returnees but the quality of return that UNHCR will increasingly concentrate on. While returnees need some individual assistance in the form of food, agricultural tools and seeds to bridge the time until the first harvest, UNHCR also helps to rehabilitate the infrastructure of the receiving communes.

"We are making sure that the impoverished Angolan municipalities are not further burdened by returning refugees but that they all benefit equally from the UNHCR repatriation programme," says Nyekan. "We are helping with the rehabilitation of schools, hospitals, water wells, and with roads and de-mining, until such time that the government of Angola and development agencies can take full responsibility."

Moxico is Angola's largest province, approximately the size of the United Kingdom. It is also the region with the largest number of returnees. To facilitate smooth reintegration, Veronique Genaille, the Head of UNHCR's Sub-Office in Moxico's capital Luena, shaped her programme for 2005 to meet the needs of the entire population.

In the municipality of Cazombo for example, UNHCR and its implementing partners will strive to reduce mortality rates and increase access to preventive health services for pregnant women and children under five. The refugee agency will pay for the maintenance of water services in the reception centre so that water supplies for the local population are not affected by the continuous stream of passing new arrivals. Three bridges near Cazombo will be rehabilitated in 2005. UNHCR will also pay to set up a model garden and a husbandry project for ducks, goats and pigs, run by vulnerable women. A brick machine will be purchased for the community.

"Rehabilitation is not only a question of the infrastructure," says Genaille. "It is also necessary to reach out to the hearts and minds of people for reconciliation." Therefore, the 2005 programme for Cazombo foresees the institution of a reconciliation centre with library, children's corner and sports facilities. There will be a women's centre and a community theatre. UNHCR also plans to conduct peace and reconciliation workshops, as well as to continue intensive Portuguese language training for returnee children so that they can integrate into the regular Angolan education system.

Many more such activities are planned in other Moxican municipalities and throughout Angola. Returnee Barbosa has heard about that already. "We will get a women's centre here in Luena next year," she says hopefully. "Maybe I can run a pre-school within the centre. Our women and children here would like that very much and I would like it most of all!"

As for next year's repatriation programme, UNHCR has agreed with Angola and the major asylum countries of Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Namibia to try and complete the return of some 53,000 refugees remaining in camps and settlements who wish to repatriate.

Estimates of Angolan refugees who have settled outside the camps in bordering countries vary widely, ranging from 83,000 to around 200,000. It is planned that once the camp-based refugees are voluntarily repatriated, there will be a window of opportunity in 2006 for these spontaneously-settled Angolan refugees to return home with UNHCR assistance should they wish to do so.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Angola