Refugee herdsmen return to Nigeria
BANYO, Cameroon, April 18 (UNHCR) - A group of 420* refugee herdsmen today returned to Nigeria from Cameroon, where they had been seeking shelter since fleeing clashes in their homeland three years ago. Many more are expected to follow later, travelling on foot with their livestock.
This morning, the group left Banyo in north-western Cameroon's Adamaoua province in 26 six-wheel-drive jeeps designed to withstand the rough terrain. They travelled on bumpy roads at 3-5 km/hr towards the Kanyaka border crossing with Nigeria. From there, the refugees will proceed to Taraba state in the east.
"The women and children had excited smiles on their faces," observed UNHCR Representative in Cameroon Jacques Franquin, who was travelling with the convoy. "They said they were very happy to be able to go home in safety and dignity. They thanked the Cameroonian government for its hospitality, and UNHCR for making their return possible."
He noted however, that some of the returning refugees were rather anxious, unsure of what to expect at home.
The group is part of 30,000 Nigerian refugees - mostly Muslim herdsmen of the Fulani tribe - who fled Taraba state following clashes with the Mambila Christian farmer community in 2002. Many subsequently returned home, leaving 17,000 in Cameroon's Adamaoua and Nord-Ouest provinces.
Preparations for repatriation started in August last year, after an evaluation mission by UNHCR, other UN agencies and representatives of donor countries concluded that peace and security had been restored in Taraba state and that it was now safe for return.
UNHCR started repatriating the refugees to Nigeria last December. Today's return convoy was the second one for the group of 17,000 still in Cameroon. Another 220* are expected to return on Tuesday. In all, the agency plans to help 5,000 Nigerian refugees home this year, and is making arrangements for those who wish to return on foot with their livestock.
Signing the official tripartite repatriation agreement with the governments of Nigeria and Cameroon last week, UNHCR's Franquin thanked the Cameroonian authorities for allowing the refugees to settle in the villages, where they roam freely. The government's flexibility, he said, "saved the refugees as it is hard to imagine how these semi-nomadic people who are accustomed to travelling great distances so their livestock could graze, would have made it had they been parked in camps, deprived of their ancestral style of living."
By Fatoumata Kaba
* Figures amended on April 19