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Refugees Magazine Issue 112 (Going Home : Mozambique Revisited) - Home Sweet Home

Refugees Magazine Issue 112 (Going Home : Mozambique Revisited) - Home Sweet Home
Refugees (112, II - 1998)

1 June 1998
The return of 1.7 million refugees was a success-but what about Mozambique's future?

The return of 1.7 million people to Mozambique in the early 1990s was one of the most successful refugee stories in modern times. But today, the country continues to live on a knife edge

By Ray Wilkinson

The brutal civil war claimed Maria Recartade's brother first. Several relatives were subsequently killed and finally her husband was tortured and slain. Maria and her four children hid in the bush most nights, terrified that either government troops or guerrillas would come for her next until she fled to neighbouring Zimbabwe in 1984. "There was no other way," she said recently. "If I had stayed, we would have all been killed."

Maria escaped from a deeply traumatized country. For 30 years Mozambique, a long sliver of mountain, scrub and pristine beaches on Africa's eastern flank, had been wracked by conflict - first in the colonial struggle against the Portuguese and then by a particularly savage civil war between the FRELIMO government and a shadowy guerrilla movement called RENAMO. Homes, schools and clinics were razed, torture and execution became an everyday tool of war. More than one-third of Mozambique's 17 million people abandoned their homes, seeking refuge in nearby hills or in one of six surrounding nations.

Even when the hungry and exhausted combatants fought each other to a standstill and signed a peace agreement in 1992, the future appeared bleak. Mozambique at that point was a broken nation, its people deeply scarred by a war in which families were often turned against each other and no physical infrastructure to speak of.

What some aid officials later termed "the miracle of Mozambique" began almost overnight as refugees started returning home, at first spontaneously and then with help from UNHCR and other organizations. In a 30-month period, 1.7 million people either walked or caught ferries, buses, cars, trains and planes to go back. An estimated four million internally displaced persons emerged from their hiding places. "I was safe in a refugee camp and my children had food," Maria Recartade said. "But Mozambique was my home. I was still afraid. But the refugee buses and the refugee officials reassured me. Their presence was my protection."

Today Maria lives in a neat pilhota (hut) of mud brick and branches near the north-western administrative centre of Tete. She returned home with a new husband but little else. "The bus dropped us off. Officials gave us food, some sheeting, tools and seed," she said. "But there was nothing else here, nothing. There were no houses, no schools, no wells and no crops."

Such homecomings were repeated across the land, but an inauspicious beginning developed into one of the most successful refugee returns since the end of World War Two, according to senior humanitarian officials. "The Mozambicans themselves were largely responsible for the 'miracle'" one western official says. "The agencies and the donors gave a helping hand. But we are still searching for the secret formula that worked so well here. We would like to patent it and use it again in other crises."


Mozambique was lucky, but the country also made its own good fortune. It is rare that refugee emergencies experience such a run of positive developments as happened in Mozambique. People had been killing each other for years, but as they emerged from the camps and the bush, they buried their political and military differences virtually overnight. "We were interested in planting seeds and not starting war tribunals to punish the guilty," one local official says, in an interesting departure from conventional wisdom among humanitarian agencies that crimes must first be punished as a prerequisite to successful reintegration.

Because families had remained together or quickly reunited, there were few orphaned children. That development, plus the lack of political or military recrimination, meant there was little need for an extensive protection network which UNHCR normally employs in major repatriations. Land was also plentiful and there were no destructive squabbles over property rights which marred other returns such as ones in Rwanda and Cambodia. Nature pitched in by providing two bountiful rainy seasons for the returning farmers.

The government in Maputo, once dominated by hardline communists, underwent a major policy 'u' turn and liberalized trade, finance, politics and social programmes and became the 'darling' of Western governments and donors. UNHCR established not only a major programme to help refugees return, but also started the most ambitious project in its history to help them reintegrate once they reached home, spending around $100 million distributing food, providing seeds, tools and shelter materials and rebuilding roads, schools, health centres and wells. In all, the organization launched an estimated 1,500 so-called Quick Impact Projects (QIPs), the majority budgeted below $40,000.

The programme was exhausting, exciting - and highly controversial.

"Working in Mozambique was a killer," says Bernard Kerblat who, as senior programme officer at the time, supervised many of the projects. "We worked 85 hours a week, but it was a wonderful experience watching these people. Their homes had been destroyed, the roads were mined and some limped home on one leg. But they were HAPPY." The early days, especially, were also highly charged and emotional. Fernando Fazenda, director of the government's National Refugee Support Agency (NAR) recalls heated and often angry exchanges late at night as government and UNHCR officials sought common ground on how best to cope with the crisis. "When it became too hot," he said recently, "you had to get up from the table and leave to cool down. Eventually, we reached an amicable compromise on most issues."

Other organizations viewed UNHCR's reintegration approach with distrust and scepticism. "Hey, we were responsible for development projects and suddenly UNHCR was big footing us and taking over our patch," one western aid official said. "Dozens of projects were started without any real assessment. Some schools were built, for instance, but they had no teachers." But, the official added, "maybe even as a symbol or a beacon the projects made a difference. They helped attract the people back home."

The blueprint for UNHCR's Mozambique programme was an innovative document called 'reintegration strategy' which stated clearly what the organization would and would not do and how. Crucially it also detailed the most difficult phase of any emergency - an exit strategy. The operation delivered its overall promise of a planned buildup, a targetted and well-timed programme and a phased withdrawal according to schedule.


UNHCR handed over responsibility for the QIPs to the government and other partners in 1996, but the debate prompted by this hands-on approach continues today. When does emergency aid for refugees stop and development begin? Should UNHCR involve itself in development projects and how deeply? Did those programmes in Mozambique strike an equitable balance between emergency needs and long-term sustainability? Could lessons learned in Mozambique be applied to future crises? Overall, did these projects best serve the refugees and did the donors who paid the bills get value for money?

Some officials argue that even without any projects, the sturdy Mozambique farmers would have simply returned home and got on with the job of rebuilding their lives. But when REFUGEES magazine recently revisited several parts of the country, the reaction from government officials, aid workers and villagers remained upbeat. "Hah, without assistance we would all be dead," Ernesto Rafael, a district education official in Changara district near Tete, said with a broad smile. "Oh, things were very difficult then. Everything was destroyed. UNHCR and the donors were the only line to life." Antonia Erusani, a peasant farmer in Gaza Province used similar words to describe the situation: "I would not be talking to you today. A lot of us would have died."

The longterm impact of the projects is more difficult to assess. In Marara district near the huge Cabora Bassa dam, examples of both the good, the bad and the ugly can be seen side by side. In one boarding school complex, UNHCR helped kick-start a project to build sleeping accommodation, showers and a kitchen for hundreds of pupils. But when UNHCR left the area so did the foreign agency which inherited the job, and the work was unfinished, according to school director Cesario Vinho. Today, the uncompleted showers have been turned into smelly urinals, the badly designed kitchen has never been used and 200 boys sleep on bare concrete in two shabby dormitories which were scheduled to be rebuilt.

Two hundred yards away another school complex completed by UNHCR with Norwegian partners is thriving. Several classrooms were built and are well maintained today allowing 14 teachers (their $30-50 a month salaries are paid by the government), to teach 600 children. "Without help we would have no classrooms and probably no pupils," says school director Adelino Muatiacale. "But you stopped the aid too soon," he tells a UNHCR visitor. "We wanted one more schoolroom."

Water pumps, schools and some health centres continue to operate in the region. UNHCR's ubiquitous blue plasting sheeting dots the landscape, adorning the roofs of village huts as rain proofing, protecting crops and even providing a colourful backdrop in a Tete nightclub. NAR director Fernando Fazenda believes that "the majority of these quick impact projects are still operational. The QIPs formed the backbone of our future development."

A recent Health Ministry survey estimated, however, that a quarter of 400 rural health facilities built between 1992-96, some as part of the QIP programme, have been closed or are under-utilized, according to Sam Barnes, who was head of planning and assessment for the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Assistance in 1992-94 and who still lives in Mozambique. She believes that perhaps 50 percent of the projects are viable and worries that failed schemes have an adverse political fallout.


A comprehensive review of UNHCR's reintegration programme entitled "Rebuilding a War-Torn Society" concluded that overall it had made a "valuable contribution" to postwar reconstruction and reconciliation, but things could still have been done better. Reintegration should have started sooner (by the time a strategy had been finalized in 1994, the war had been over for more than two years and 75 percent of the refugees had returned home), the report said. Stronger links should have been forged between UNHCR offices in countries of asylum and the country of return and with development agencies, and the agency's manpower and technical field resources should have been strengthened, it added.

How applicable are the lessons learned in Mozambique to other refugee crises? Some Mozambique veterans fear much valuable information has already been squandered through "institutional memory loss." "In each crisis, we always start from square one. We never remember" says one staff member.

If the lessons learned in Mozambique could be superimposed directly to another crisis, it would seem to be Angola. The two countries were both Portuguese colonies, they experienced devastating civil wars which destroyed their infrastructures and were left with huge displaced populations inside and outside the country.

But there the similarities end, according to Peter de Clercq, who worked in Mozambique and is currently UNHCR's deputy representative in Angola. After the 1992 peace agreement, political reconciliation and reintegration moved swiftly ahead in Mozambique, underwritten by the international community. There has been no such euphoria or quick turnaround in Angola. Donors remain sceptical about the country's future and a shortage of funds has hampered both adequate UNHCR staffing levels and the return of refugees. Angola continues to be plagued by major political problems and, perhaps most importantly, the war has never fully stopped. Recently, thousands of refugees fled to neighbouring Congo and UNHCR personnel had to leave several field offices because of renewed fighting between government troops and UNITA rebel forces.

"Still," says de Clercq, "repatriation is happening. Between 1995 and 1997, 140,000 Angolans returned home and UNHCR provided them with seeds, tools and food for one year. And a number of initiatives developed in Mozambique have been improved on in Angola such as plans for the rehabilitation of basic infrastuctures throughout the countryside.


While Angola continues to struggle with its internal demons, Mozambique today is a remarkable success story. Nearly six million people have been successfully reintegrated and the country even attracts refugees - several hundred a year mainly from central Africa. Last year, the country enjoyed an eight percent economic growth rate, one of the highest in Africa, and it is once again self sufficient in many foodstuffs. White Boer farmers from South Africa, once Mozambique's major enemy, are helping revive the country's agriculture.

But this 'miracle' remains balanced on a knife edge. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries on earth despite recent advances. While the government gives education top priority, funds are so scarce that last year one district had only $300 for 33 primary schools. Hundreds of thousands of landmines lace the countryside. But perhaps the most feared expression, known even to the remotest farmer, is El Nino and its effect on the weather and crops.

In Tete province, the World Food Programme earlier this year helped feed 56,000 people after flooding caused widespread damage to crops. In other areas drought was a major problem. There is little employment other than subsistence farming and there are glaring lifestyle discrepancies, especially in cities such as Maputo. "To be rich in the capital for most people means having one meal on the table per day," says one worker. "But the truly rich ride around in Mercedes. One Mercedes could pay the salaries of 25 people for 25 years."

Many refugees said at the time of their return that "God has been angry with us for starting the war and he has punished us." But they are hoping this time that despite the recent setbacks in the countryside, that God is still on their side.


Located on the south-east flank of Africa, Mozambique covers an area of 779,380 square kilometres of savannah bushland, mountain and pristine beaches.

Colonized by the Portuguese, Mozambique gained its independence in 1975 after a bloody war of liberation, A potentially rich agricultural land, it remains one of the world's poorest nations.

The 16.5 million population speak principally Portuguese and 13 African languages including Makua, Chuabo, Nyanja , Sena and Ronga-Shangana. Forty percent of the population follow traditional African beliefs, 30 percent are Muslim, 20 percent Catholic and five percent Protestant.

Political system:
After embracing Communism immediately after independence, Mozambique abruptly changed course and today there is a multi-party system in place. The first general elections were held in 1994.

The war of independence was followed by major internal conflict. Nearly two million people fled to neighbouring countries and an estimated four million people became internally displaced.

Following a 1992 Peace Agreement between the FRELIMO government and RENAMO guerrillas, 1.7 million people returned from six neighbouring states in a 30 month period.

UNHCR directly assisted nearly 400,000 refugees to go home and also established its most ambitious reintegration programme inside Mozambique to help the returnees restart their lives. The organization spent an estimated $100 million and launched around 1,500 projects providing food, tools, seeds and rebuilding roads, schools, wells, and health clinics.

Today, Mozambique remains one of the world's poorest countries, but its mainstay agricultural output is improving rapidly and the reintegration of more than one third of the population who were forced to flee during the war has been one of the most successful programmes in modern times anywhere.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 112 (1998)