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UNHCR repatriates 45 Congolese to Kinshasa on maiden flight

UNHCR repatriates 45 Congolese to Kinshasa on maiden flight

UN refugee agency opens repatriation air corridor to Kinshasa for Congolese refugees in Tanzania.
7 December 2007
Excited passengers on the flight from Kigoma to Kinshasa.

KIGOMA, Tanzania, December 7 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday launched a repatriation air corridor to the Democratic Republic of the Congo capital, Kinshasa, for Congolese refugees in Tanzania.

A first group of 45 Congolese refugees took off this morning from Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika on the special chartered flight. UNHCR normally only takes Congolese returnees by ferry to eastern areas of the DRC. Others would also like to go to Kinshasa and more flights are possible in 2008, UNHCR staff said.

"This particular airlift to Kinshasa demonstrates UNHCR's readiness to facilitate the voluntary return of Congolese refugees who wish to go home from Tanzania," said Yacoub El Hillo, UNHCR's representative in Tanzania, adding that the refugee agency has helped more than 26,000 refugees returned home by ferry from Tanzania this year.

Many of those returning home on Friday fled eastern DRC almost 10 years ago, but unlike other returnees they either came from Kinshasa or wanted to go there to join relatives. Reaching the capital by road from the east would be very difficult and take several weeks.

UNHCR made tracing of their families in Kinshasa a precondition for return. The government does not want to create a displaced population in the capital, where the social structure for support for returnees is not as solid as that in the rural areas," said Nsona Vela do Nascimento, a UNHCR official in Kinshasa.

The returnees on the special flight were each given a cash grant to ease their reintegration. They were clearly excited at the prospect of going home, breaking into song, clapping and praying before the plane took off on the four-and-a-half hour flight to Kinshasa.

'I've never been on a plane before," said Yohana Alobo, a 22-year-old refugee from Tanzania's Lugufu camp, who was travelling alone and hoped to go to university in the capital. "It is a new beginning and I look forward to finally seeing my family," he added.

Kinshasa native Frederick Kasamba, 45, explained how he had been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1999. He was teaching in the town of Kalemie in eastern DRC's Katanga province when war broke out and he fled across Lake Tanganyika to safety in Tanzania.

"I am very proud to go back to Kinshasa and show my wife and kids where I come from," said an enthusiastic Kasamba, who has spent the last eight years in Nyarugusu camp.

Under an agreement signed by UNHCR with the governments of DRC and Tanzania, refugees have a right to return to any part of the DRC provided their safety can be assured.

There are currently some 98,000 Congolese refugees in Lugufu and Nyarugusu camps in north-western Tanzania. Others live outside the camps. Since the start of the repatriation programme in October 2005, UNHCR has helped almost 50,000 Congolese refugees repatriate from Tanzania. Some 300 refugees have returned to Kinshasa this year from countries around Africa.

By Marjolijn M. Luchtmeijer in Kigoma, Tanzania