First repatriation movement to DRC's Katanga province arrives amidst tropical downpour
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, April 13 (UNHCR) - A ferry chartered by the UN refugee agency has docked after crossing Lake Tanganyika with 494 returning refugees, marking the first organised voluntary repatriation from Tanzania to Katanga Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
"This first facilitated return movement is only the start," said Eusebe Hounsokou, UNHCR's representative in the DRC, of Thursday's voyage. "Next month in May, we hope to launch the repatriation of 60,000 refugees from Zambia to Katanga."
Most returnees originated from Kalemie town on the shore of Lake Tanganyika and had spent years in asylum in Tanzania after fleeing in the late 1990s from civil war in Katanga - a province in south-eastern DRC known for violent conflict and richness in natural resources.
Despite improved security and the end of open conflict in the province in mid-2006, UNHCR remains cautious. Sporadic human rights violations by armed men continue and the unmet needs of former militia members reintegrating into civilian life have the potential for friction. But refugees have been anxious to return.
"Thousands of internally displaced already returned within Katanga during the second half of 2006, turning the page after the horrendous conflicts and human rights violations in the province's past," said Hounsokou.
After a night's sailing from Tanzania across Africa's longest lake, sandbars and torrential rains had slowed the docking at the port of Kalemie. The first returnee family to leave the UNHCR-chartered repatriation ship MV Mwongozo was escorted under umbrellas in the pouring rain - not inauspicious in a country where the proverb, "rain is a blessing," portends good times.
UNHCR transferred returnees to the transit centre in Kalemie, where they can rest for two days and receive hot meals and medical services. Most of the returnees originated from Kalemie town. The UN peace-keeping mission, MONUC, provided support for the transfer from the port to the transit centre.
Return kits scheduled for distribution on Friday included mosquito nets, kitchen sets, blankets, sheets and other items, as well as food rations for three months from the World Food Programme.
"You may find your houses occupied, you may find someone else working on your land," warned the Tanganyika District Commissioner during the arrival ceremony. "Do not hesitate to contact me for these problems. We will do our best to help you."
Katanga was the scene of violent conflict between militias and government forces until mid-2006. Shocking human rights violations were committed against civilians, including looting and burning of entire villages. There were some 170,000 internally displaced. Open confrontations in the province ended after the leader of the Mai-Mai militia surrendered to MONUC.
In preparation of launching repatriation from Zambia, UNHCR has established transit centres, evaluated return areas and started income generation activities. However, first movements can start only after details of the complex cross-border operation have been agreed by the tripartite commission grouping DRC, Zambia and UNHCR,
Reintegration remains the biggest challenge for returnees to the DRC. While the savannah of Katanga is rich in resources and nature, most of its people live in extreme poverty. UNHCR teams in the Moba/Pweto region, an area of origin for refugees now in Zambia, observed that the local population in some villages hardly had enough clothing. After years of conflict and neglect, health services and well-equipped schools are scarce.
More than 340,000 Congolese refugees remain in asylum. The main host countries are Tanzania (122,000), Zambia (61,000), Rwanda (47,000) and the Republic of Congo (44,000). Over 7,000 refugees have returned so far in 2007, and more than 96,000 in total since 2004.
By Jens Hesemann in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo