Lubbers, in Great Lakes region, stresses plight of African refugees
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo, Feb. 26 (UNHCR) - High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, on the third day of a whirlwind trip to stress the plight of uprooted people in Central Africa, met Tuesday with government officials and visited refugees living in remote northern areas of the Oubangui River.
Some 84,000 refugees, mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Equateur Province, sought asylum along an 800-kilometre stretch of the river to escape renewed fighting between government forces and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo. The civil war in the former Belgian colony has caused the death of some two million people, mainly from malnutrition and disease, and resulted in the flight of 300,000 others to neighbouring countries.
Most of the refugees in the Republic of Congo can only be reached by the Oubangui River, with many living in areas prone to flooding. Improved security conditions in the region have increased UNHCR's access to them, but land remains scarce and food self-sufficiency hard to attain.
The High Commissioner was scheduled to visit the Loukolela Camp, which was opened in July 2000 and hosts 1,700 people. The camp has a significant number of vulnerable refugees, including children, women and the elderly.
On Monday, Lubbers visited Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, where Prime Minister Martin Ziguele assured him that his government had taken steps to create adequate conditions for the return of several thousand refugees who remain in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
More than 20,000 Central African Republic refugees fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in their country last May.
The prime minister told Lubbers that since last year thousands of refugees had returned home safely and without any political repercussions, and he asked that the U.N. agency convey to the refugees his government's assurance that they were free to return home.
"My government has neither the will nor the means to hinder their return," the Prime Minister said, adding that those implicated in last year's coup attempt would receive a fair trial.
For his part, Lubbers welcomed the signing of a tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the governments of the Central African Republic and Rwanda. The agreement, signed last Saturday, is expected to pave the way for the voluntary return of some 500 Rwandan refugees currently in the Central African Republic.
"I am happy that we have signed this agreement that should help Rwandans who want to return home. We are here to facilitate this but we cannot force people to go," Lubbers said.
During his two-day visit to the Central African Republic, the first stop in a four-nation tour that also includes the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, and Rwanda, the refugee chief on Sunday visited Congolese refugees in Molangue camp, some 130 kilometres south-west of Bangui.
Speaking to journalists at the camp, a former a coffee plantation, Lubbers pledged to discuss the return of thousands of Congolese refugees with leaders in Democratic Republic of the Congo, including rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba.
"I will certainly say it on the other side of the border to Mr. Bemba, that we have to sit at the table and find solutions so that these people can go home," the High Commissioner said.
Lubbers also urged Bemba to attend the peace talks now under way in South Africa designed to put an end to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rebel leader had threatened to boycott the talks on grounds that opposition political parties were insufficiently represented.
Thousands of singing and dancing Congolese refugees mobbed the High Commissioner as he toured the Molangue Camp. Many of them fled to the Central African Republic in 1998 and 1999 to escape the conflict which followed Laurent Kabila's ascension to power and the subsequent occupation of large parts of northern and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo by rebel groups from Uganda and Rwanda.
Congolese women waving twigs and chanting songs in Lingala, a Congolese language, lined the dusty road into the camp in sweltering heat to greet Lubbers as security personnel struggled to contain the surging crowds. The head of the refugee agency planted a tree in a school at the camp to the cheers and more songs from hundreds of refugee children around the bare courtyard.
"Its good that they get an education," Lubbers said referring to the children around him. "But there has to be a future and a new life for them. The best way, of course, is that they have a chance to go home."