Congolese refugees return to Equateur in growing numbers
BUBURU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 22 (UNHCR) - More than 16,000 refugees have returned to their home districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) Equateur province so far this year - almost as much as in the three previous years combined.
The surge in the number of returns to the rainforests of north-west DRC - almost all from the neighbouring Republic of Congo (RoC) across the Oubangui River - comes as UNHCR prepares to phase out assisted voluntary repatriation to this area in mid-2008. UNHCR officials said the increase was possible because the agency had stepped up river return trips and was now taking people to two destinations simultaneously - Buburu and Imese.
This year's total return figure is expected to reach around 18,000, compared to 1,946 in 2004 when the programme started, 7,286 in 2005 and 10,655 last year. Almost all have returned from RoC.
"Almost 36,000 Congolese refugees have returned peacefully to DRC's Equateur province since we launched organized repatriation in 2004," said UNHCR Regional Representative Eusebe Hounsokou, while watching returnees board boats at the RoC town of Impfondo on the northern bank of the Oubangui.
"Even by African standards the return area is extremely remote," he said, adding that UNHCR had organized more than 100 repatriation river convoys from RoC to Equateur province so far this year.
The Oubangui River forms a natural boundary between the two Congos, cutting through hundreds of kilometres of thick tropical rainforest until it feeds into the Congo River. From 1997-2002, Equateur province was torn by fighting between government troops and the rebel Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) which caused more than 60,000 Congolese to flee across the river. Peace has returned to the area and the military forces have been withdrawn from refugee return areas.
UNHCR faces logistical challenges in delivering aid to the returnee communities dispersed in small villages along the river. The refugee agency works with a flexible "phase in, phase out" approach, said Insa Saibou, head of the UNHCR field office in Buburu. This entailed opening five offices and later closing four as the need for assistance diminished.
The refugee agency has also used specially made wooden river boats - so-called "balenaires" or whaling boats - during repatriation. These long, thin vessels carry only 50 people each but are easier to navigate along the Oubangui and have helped boost return figures.
"Repatriation numbers to Equateur province have peaked because we were able to run four repatriation boat convoys per week to two destinations in parallel, with up to 1,000 returnees per week," said Ben Diallo, UNHCR's head of office in Impfondo. The two main repatriation routes from Impfondo to Imese and Buburu were opened respectively in February and July this year.
Those returning still face hardship in an area lacking infrastructure and basic services. Dug-out canoes are the main form of transport in an area with few roads, while many health centres are in a poor condition after years of neglect.
That has not deterred people like Wera Mwaiyanga, who stepped off the UNHCR balenaire which had brought him back to Buburu late last week and announced: "I am very pleased to return home." The 41-year-old said he planned to send his children to school and live from farming.
At the UNHCR transit centre, Mwaiyanga and other returnee families received a return package of jerry cans, blankets, kitchen sets, plastic sheeting and the tools needed to build a traditional mud brick house. A day later Mwaiyanga and his family were taken on to their home village.
UNHCR also conducts medical screening in the transit centre and vaccinates children against measles. Partner agencies talk to the returnees about HIV-AIDS and the danger posed by landmines.
In major return areas, UNHCR helps to rehabilitate health centres and schools and supports income generation projects such as fishing or carpentry. But these can only go so far and returnees complain not enough is being done to ease their reintegration. The international community must do more to help develop the region and restore basic health and education services.
Since 2004, more than 136,000 Congolese refugees have repatriated to the DRC, mainly to South Kivu (59,000), Equateur (36,000) and Katanga (35,000) provinces. The majority have come back with UNHCR assistance. Some 310,000 Congolese refugees remain in countries like Tanzania (101,000), Zambia (56,000), Rwanda (45,000) and the RoC (31,000).
The UNHCR repatriation programme to Equateur province from RoC has been supported by several donors, including the US government and the Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) of the European Commission.
By Jens Hesemann in Buburu, Democratic Republic of the Congo