Congolese returnees lobby for more aid in South Kivu
BARAKA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dec 22 (UNHCR) - After seven years in exile in Tanzania, Christophe Watokewa Lobemba came back to the town of Fizi, in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to find his house destroyed. He now lives with his wife and four children in two rooms in the nearby town of Baraka. When asked how he pays the rent, he points towards Lake Tanganyika: fishing allows him to make a small living and, most importantly, to feed his family.
Like hundreds of thousands of Congolese, Lobemba fled the unrest and violence of the Kivus in the mid-1990s to take refuge in neighbouring Tanzania, just across Lake Tanganyika. Today, more than 150,000 Congolese are still living in two large camps in Tanzania - Lugufu and Nyarugusu. Almost 10 years on, the situation in the Kivus remains unstable and going back home is still only a dream for many refugees.
But others have decided that they do not want to wait any longer, and like Lobemba, have made the journey back across Lake Tanganyika. The trip is expensive, as much as $10 per adult, but the wish to return home is strong. Since October 2003, more than 25,000 Congolese have made their way back to eastern DRC.
Most of them arrive in Baraka and go through the Red Cross transit centre, where Lobemba works as a volunteer. Recently he set up the "Committee of Spontaneous Returnees" along with some 50 families who have returned to the South Kivu area.
"We want to give a voice to all those returnees seeking a better life back in the DRC. Although we feel more free than being refugees in Tanzania, our villages are in ruins. Many assessments have been done and now it is time for action," he insists.
The "Committee of Spontaneous Returnees" functions as an advocacy group: its aim is to inform international agencies and the local authorities about the needs of returning families. It is a remarkable effort to give a voice to the thousands struggling to rebuild their lives in their homeland. Among the key problems facing the returnees, the committee has identified medical assistance, rehabilitation of houses, food and non-food assistance, as well as education for the children.
UNHCR's assessment teams on the ground in Uvira, Baraka and Fizi confirm the returnee committee's conclusions. Each village shows the same pattern of destroyed houses and neglected infrastructure. Immediate assistance is needed in the areas of shelter, access to drinking water, basic health assistance and food security.
In October 2004, UNHCR re-opened its office in Uvira, just north of Baraka, and started distributing basic relief items to vulnerable returnee families in eastern DRC. Its partner agency, the World Food Programme, is also providing one-month food rations for 1,500 families who returned via the Uvira transit centre.
UNHCR will soon establish a permanent presence in Baraka, from where a large number of Congolese refugees in Tanzania originate. The returnee committee is asking for help in paying for their return transport, and calling for the construction of more transit centres in the region. But although UNHCR is running a voluntary repatriation programme to DRC's Equateur province, in the north-west of this vast country, it does not at present facilitate return to the Kivus.
"As security in South Kivu is still fragile, we do not want to create a pull factor for return," explains UNHCR's Vanno Noupech in Uvira. "The return areas in the region currently cannot absorb mass return movements."
The refugees are aware of these problems, and of the insecurity in their home region. Over the past two weeks, UNHCR Uvira has reported fewer Congolese coming back to South Kivu. The word has spread across the lake to the refugee camps in Tanzania that once again fighting has erupted in North Kivu. Although their homes are further south, the refugees do not want to take unnecessary risks. Only 114 persons came back in the second week of December, down from several hundreds per week earlier in the year.
Against this background of persistent instability and sporadic fighting, assistance in the Kivus has been characterised so far by emergency aid measures. This will change next year, when the refugee agency will launch a comprehensive assistance programme for refugees returning to the DRC - including those coming back spontaneously to the Kivus.
"The 2005 return policy will be to assist vulnerable spontaneous returnees in South Kivu while actively facilitating return to Equateur province," says Aida Haile Mariam, who is managing UNHCR's programme in the DRC. "This will be a collaborative effort involving several UN agencies, and donor support will be crucial as the resources needed for initial reintegration and return of 40,000 Congolese will go far beyond our current budget."
To meet these needs, UNHCR will launch, as part of the UN-wide 2005 Consolidated Appeals Process, an additional appeal in January for the programme.
Some 390,000 Congolese are still in asylum in the DRC's neighbouring countries. Tanzania hosts the largest population with more than 150,000 Congolese refugees, followed by Zambia (more than 70,000) and the Republic of Congo (almost 60,000). While the 2005 assistance programme is meant to benefit all returnees, the assistance will be targeted towards those coming back from the Republic of Congo and Tanzania.
By Jens Hesemann in Baraka, Democratic Republic of the Congo