Lubbers, in Africa, visits camps and expresses hope for peace in Great Lakes region
KIGALI, March 1 (UNHCR) - High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers visited Congolese refugees in a camp in north-eastern Rwanda Friday on the last stop of a whirlwind, four nation tour of the Great Lakes region during which he expressed the hope that peace will allow hundreds of thousands of the displaced to return home.
The refugees at the Rwandan camp, mainly Banyamulenge and Banyamasisi tribesmen, fled the western provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the start of the civil war in 1997. The 16,750 people at the camp are part of the 330,000 Congolese refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo spread throughout neighbouring countries. There are also some 1.8 million internally displaced persons in the Congo itself.
In addition to the Congolese refugees, more than 800,000 Burundian refugees in neighbouring countries are unable to return to their strife-torn central African nation. Tens of thousands of refugees who fled Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in that country remain in exile throughout the region.
On Thursday Lubbers met in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, with President Joseph Kabila, who had just returned from peace talks in Sun City, South Africa, where talks to settle his country's civil war began this week.
Lubbers told reporters that he had appealed to Kabila and other leaders to give priority to the needs of the Congolese people, including refugees forced to flee their country because of the conflict, which has caused the death of about two million people, mainly from malnutrition and disease.
"The time has come to give priority to the people," Lubbers said, adding that the final objective of the Sun City peace talks is not to partition power but to work in the interest of the Congolese people.
Before arriving in Rwanda, Lubbers visited refugee camps and met with officials in the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wars in the region in recent years have resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
Speaking of his meeting with Kabila, Lubbers said he shared the President's concerns about the presence of foreign troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including forces from Rwanda and Uganda. He also expressed his disappointment at the slow progress of the Sun City talks.
The High Commissioner said he had been particularly struck by the large number of children in the camps he had visited. "It seems that the future of Congo-Kinshasa begins here already," Lubbers told more than 1,000 Congolese refugees who gathered at the Loukolela camp last Tuesday. "It is my strong hope that the children I see here will be able to return home."
"People want to return home, they need to be able to return," he added.
Lubbers urged regional leaders to create the conditions to encourage the return of more than one million refugees in the Great Lakes region and bring an end to the protracted refugee situations around the African continent.
"Each refugee who returns home in peace is an invitation for the next one to go home," Lubbers said at one point during a news conference in Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo's capital, earlier in the week.
On Angola, Lubbers expressed cautious optimism for peace in the war-torn southern African state following the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. "There are possibilities for peace. There is something in the air that makes it possible to grasp this opportunity," he said. "It may take some time because so many people are used to fighting, year after year. It may take some time before these refugees can go home, but there is a new perspective now."
But Angolan refugees in a camp in the Bas-Congo in south-western Democratic Republic of the Congo were less positive about the prospects for peace. "We did not flee Savimbi, or Edouardo dos Santos," one refugee leader in the Kilueka camp said, referring to the Angolan president. "We fled the war. It is peace that we expect. It is what we hope for."