It was as joyous a boat trip as they will ever take. The passengers sang cheerfully from the moment the launch left the dock in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They were refugees, 200 of them returning home across the Oubangui River, to the Central African Republic, or CAR, for the first time in six years.
They had fled violence and upsurges of civil conflict that erupted in 2013.
Now, thanks to a voluntary repatriation agreement signed in July between the governments of the two countries and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, they were going back.
They sang of thanks and hope. “Goodbye RDC, thank you UNHCR …. Central African Republic, my beautiful country.”
“I feel very good,” Marie Josephat Bemba, 51, said. She and her family of five became refugees in 2013. “And I’m proud. I have joy in my heart in returning to my country.”
"I’m proud. I have joy in my heart in returning to my country.”
They were met at the port of Bangui, the capital of CAR, by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
This was the fourth voluntary repatriation in the past two weeks, bringing 1,400 refugees home from exile in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Grandi spoke of shared joy, because, he said, in stepping on their country’s soil, they had ceased to be refugees. This is what UNHCR strives for. Their return is both a sign of confidence and a sign of courage.
But Grandi said everyone must remain realistic.
“In this moment, when we see refugees returning, we must remember that there are still many internally displaced in this country and they too deserve our help,” he said.
"We must remember that there are still many internally displaced ... and they too deserve our help."
“There are also hundreds of thousands of refugees on the other side of this river as well as in Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Chad and in other countries who continue to need a lasting solution.”
It is estimated that there are more than 600,000 CAR refugees and at least 600,000 internally displaced, and this in a country of just under 4.7 million. That means that more than a quarter of the population has fled their homes and towns, and most are women and children.
In the last three years, UNHCR has assisted the return of 13,500 and it is estimated that 127,000 have returned spontaneously.
“We came back to help the country,” Reno Mauwina said. He’s a construction engineer and head of a family of seven who fled the civil unrest around Bangui in 2013. Two of his children were born in exile.
“So, the government must now work to integrate us in the different sectors we can contribute to.”
Returning refugees are provided with transport and a return package consisting of food rations for three months, cash and basic household items to help them initially once they are back in CAR.
Mauwina’s happiness was tempered with worry. “My fear is that the situation that unsettled the country can happen again. We wouldn’t have the strength to face it again. Let us hope our children have returned to an atmosphere of peace.”
But for most, happiness was unalloyed in returning to a capital of a country that people are no longer fleeing from.