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UNHCR joins efforts to help returnees in Uvira

UNHCR joins efforts to help returnees in Uvira

Many Congolese refugees have returned on their own from Tanzania to the DRC's South Kivu area, where they find their homes destroyed and families lost. While UNHCR is not encouraging returns to the country at this point, it has joined other agencies to assist these desperate spontaneous returnees.
22 November 2004
Returnees at an Uvira transit centre wait for their families to be traced before they can go back to their villages.

UVIRA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nov 22 (UNHCR) - It looks like a typical house in the town of Uvira, but this sign-less building by the Tanganyika Lake serves as a transit centre in the eastern Congolese town where life is slowly picking up again after five years of civil war.

Its current residents are former refugees who returned from camps in Tanzania but have no home to go back to and no family to receive them. They have been in the transit centre for over two weeks, hoping that the Baptist Community Development Action (ACOBAD) that is running the centre will succeed in tracing their lost families.

Charles Method is among the eight families caught in this desperate situation. For seven years, he was a refugee in Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania. In October, he returned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with his wife and two children, aged two and seven, after a week-long journey mostly on foot.

Method recalls, "When we left the camp, we walked to Sosumo in Burundi, where we spent the night. The following morning, we took a car to Bujumbura and from then on, walked again until we reached Uvira. We had no choice because we had no money to pay for a boat crossing. I carried my daughter on my back and my wife did the same with our son."

For most homebound refugees from Tanzania, the usual itinerary is to go to Kigoma and take a boat across Lake Tanganyika, the natural boundary between Tanzania and the DRC.

Like Method, the other seven returnee families came home without much planning, anxious to return to their country.

"Several returnee families I spoke to have no clue about how they would make their way back to their villages once they enter DRC," says Vanno Noupech, who runs the UNHCR office in Uvira. "Most say they heard that somehow they will get help as returnees. But they might end up stuck for a while before finding assistance to go to their villages."

Another common problem for the returnees is that their homes have been destroyed. While some in that situation decide to rebuild, others are more hesitant. Method, for instance, is reluctant to return to Kamanyola, 80 km north of Uvira, where his house, he was told, no longer stands. Too poor to start again for the moment, he is hoping for help from the humanitarian agencies, particularly UNHCR.

In the meantime, he is assisting ACOBAD to authenticate returnees' claim that they were refugees in Tanzania's camps. For that, he uses his knowledge of camp life and of Tanzania. However, he gets no payment in exchange, as ACOBAD is a local humanitarian agency with over 3,000 members who are all volunteers eager to help the needy.

According to ACOBAD coordinator Joseph Mikugo Omar, the only help his agency can provide is food and, occasionally, transport for returnees transiting in the centre. He says that charity organisations Caritas and Aide Médicale Internationale sometimes provide medical assistance and food. To him, the fact that Method can help weed out fake returnees has helped to ensure that those most in need are indeed receiving the limited help available. He is also grateful for UNHCR's recent contributions.

Since re-opening its Uvira office two weeks ago, UNHCR has begun to provide local organisations caring for returnees with plastic sheeting for shelter, blankets, soap bars, jerry cans and kitchen sets.

"While we are setting up our office here in Uvira, we find it absolutely necessary to reinforce structures that are already assisting returnees," says Noupech. "Some of these items are meant to be used at the transit centres so that they benefit a large number of persons returning, while others are for distribution to the neediest returnees in their villages."

Spelling out UNHCR's policy, Noupech adds, "We are still at the stage where we are conducting needs assessments that will enable us to plan our return and reintegration programme to cover unmet needs, since other organisations are also on the ground and providing assistance. In the meantime, we cannot ignore the former refugees who have already come back."

So far, UNHCR has provided relief items to Caritas and ACOBAD in Uvira and to the Red Cross in Baraka, further south, where the vast majority of refugees in Tanzania - an estimated 150,000 - are expected to return. These three relief agencies are operating in the territories of Uvira and Fiza that together cover an area of 23,000 km2 in South Kivu, eastern DRC.

There are an estimated 350,000 Congolese refugees primarily settled in Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, many of whom originate from the volatile South Kivu region.

By Fatoumata Kaba in Uvira, Democratic Republic of the Congo