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Congolese refugees in South Sudan prepare to go against the flow


Congolese refugees in South Sudan prepare to go against the flow

As the UN refugee agency gears up to repatriate tens of thousands of refugees to South Sudan after two decades of exile in neighbouring countries, hundreds of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are preparing to head the other way, after 40 years as refugees in South Sudan.
12 December 2005 Also available in:
UNHCR has registered this family along with some 850 other Congolese refugees who fled from DRC to South Sudan 40 years ago – and now want to go home.

JUBA, South Sudan, December 12 (UNHCR) - Over the weekend, the UN refugee agency finished registering a group of 851 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who have been in South Sudan for the past 40 years - but now want to go home.

The group left DRC (then known as Zaire) between 1965 and 1968, in order to escape post-independence chaos and fighting, as well as the coup that brought Mobutu Sese Seko to power. The refugees headed north-east to Juba, in southern Sudan.

The total number of Congolese refugees living in this part of Sudan is double the number registered so far - around 1,700 in all - and UNHCR believes many of the remaining members of the group will sign up to return once the repatriation gets under way.

Even though a significant proportion of the group were born in South Sudan and are well integrated into Sudanese society, the majority told UNHCR that they have a strong desire to return to the land of their ancestors.

"I was born here, in Juba, 22 years ago," said Gilbert. "But I want to go where my grandparents were born - in Kisangani. My parents told me about the Congo when I was growing up in South Sudan. I don't know what it looks like, but I am not afraid of going there." Gilbert went to school in Juba and his studies were conducted in Arabic. He hopes to able to complete his secondary school education back in DRC.

Others, like Christopher (aged 34, and also born in Juba), expect to find a good job in Kisangani, where his parents and grandparents came from. He works for an international NGO in Juba, and even though he says that he has no connection at all with DRC, "I put myself into God's hands to develop a good life there for myself and my family."

Christopher has two Sudanese wives who will accompany him to DRC, a place that they don't know at all: as Christopher returns to his ancestral homeland, he will be taking his wives away from theirs. A lot of DRC refugees and their children have married Sudanese during their 40 years of exile.

Despite his desire to return, Christopher is worried about the security situation back in DRC. "I want to have a job and proper security in DRC. I don't want to hear the sound of bullets flying around. The war was very intensive in South Sudan for all these years. It was traumatic for southerners. It was also traumatic for us," he explained in perfect English.

Christopher stayed in Juba with his family during all twenty-one years of the war in South Sudan. A garrison town under the control of the Khartoum government for the whole duration of the war, Juba was frequently bombed as the northern army and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army fought to control the city. Christopher remembers polishing the soldiers' shoes in order to earn some money to buy food for his family. Since then he has had a strong aversion to weapons, and those who carry them: "I am afraid of people with guns" he said.

Another Congolese refugee, Gobbi, was 41 when he left his homeland. "To be exact, it was on March 28, 1965," he confirmed in French, the official language in Zaire (a former Belgian colony) at that time. Now 81 years old, he is longing to go back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even though it has gone through three different names in his lifetime, it is his home: "Here in South Sudan, this is not my country even though I have spent half of my life here. I want to go back with all my family to Congo," he said.

After the civil war in South Sudan officially ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on January 9th this year, UNHCR was able respond to the DRC refugees' requests to help them repatriate. The agency expects to start the first repatriation by plane some time over the next few months. Most of the Congolese will be repatriated to areas near Kisangani, Bumba, Akete or Banduka, in the eastern part of the DRC.

"The registration process for the first group of 315 families started on November 28, and it took two weeks to complete," explained Fred Dotse, a UNHCR protection officer in Juba. "But it is essential to help the DRC refugees go back, especially as they asked UNHCR to assist them. The elderly really have an emotional attachment to their land. It is important for them to go back and to bring their children and grandchildren with them."

By Hélène Caux in Juba, South Sudan