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Congolese refugees return home from Zambia by road and boat

Congolese refugees return home from Zambia by road and boat

Since a three-year programme of voluntary Congolese repatriation from Zambia began earlier this year, UNHCR has helped more than 7,300 refugees return to Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
18 December 2007
An aged Congolese refugee is helped by a UNHCR staff member after disembarking at Moba.

MOBA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, December 18 (UNHCR) - It was before dawn in Zambia's Kala camp when a truck began collecting refugees who had registered for voluntary repatriation. An enthusiastic Marie Kizyala Sandwe headed to the vehicle waiting outside her one-roomed thatched hut, clutching a small bag holding her personal belongings: clothes, kitchen utensils and a sleeping mat.

For 32-year-old Marie, the seven years she lived in Zambia under the protection of the government and the UN refugee agency felt like an eternity. With the help of men already on board, Marie and her two children climbed into the truck and headed to a departure centre to start the journey back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

She was among 410 registered refugees who on December 6 started their long journey home from the refugee camp in Zambia's Luapula province via road and ferry across Lake Tanganyika to the DRC town of Moba. Marie, with her two children - Kamwa, 10, and eight-year-old Dora - had fled Pweto, in DRC's Katanga province, after intense fighting in 2000. Her husband was one of the victims of the war.

"My memories of life here were good and bad. I am very glad to be going back home. I will have fond memories of Zambia," said Marie, who was involved in small-scale agriculture in the camp. "However, peace has now returned and we must all go back home."

Zambia offered sanctuary to thousands of Congolese refugees at the height of the instability in DRC. Since a three-year programme of Congolese repatriation from Zambia began earlier this year, UNHCR has helped 7,323 refugees to return to DRC's Katanga province. A further 57,000 Congolese remain in the country, the largest nationality among the 114,000 refugees in Zambia.

Musampwa Walusinda, another refugee who arrived in 2000, was also bringing his family back to the DRC. "We have been assisted a lot by the government and UNHCR, but it's now time to return home," said the 35-year-old, who had engaged in retail business at Kala. "I look forward to settling and starting life afresh back home."

In a convoy of seven buses and five trucks hired by the International Organization for Migration, they traversed 500 kilometres of rugged gravel and paved roads to reach Lake Tanganyika. On arrival in Mpulungu, Zambia's only port, the refugees were taken to a transit centre to spend the night.

The ferry arrived on schedule the next morning, but heavy rain delayed the unloading of cargo and it was another day before the refugees could board. By the time official formalities were completed and the ferry could start its 13-hour journey, it was almost sunset. As the ship left port, some refugees started singing in their native language, bidding farewell to Zambia. Others openly cried with nostalgia for the country that had temporarily become home.

As the ship glided across the lake on the 240-km journey to Moba, the returnees received a meal of fried beef, lamb, rice and vegetables - sumptuous fare compared to the basic camp diet they knew. To break the monotony, the refugees watched films on the deck of the ferry.

As the ship approached Moba, the refugees waved and burst into songs and chants. A substantial crowd was waiting on the edge of the bustling trading town, which is sandwiched between Lake Tanganyika and the mountains of the Rift Valley.

All the dignitaries of Moba district were on hand to greet the returning Congolese, including the district administrator for Moba who provided a guard of honour from the DRC state police. He welcomed the jubilant returnees and promised that the government, helped by international agencies, would do everything in its power to assist them.

The refugees were driven to a transit centre to get information on landmines and HIV/AIDS and receive reintegration assistance such as food, blankets, buckets and seeds. Marie, optimistic to be home after ending her seven years of refugee status in Zambia, plans initially to live in Moba and start supporting herself by farming.

By Kelvin Shimo in Moba, Democratic Republic of the Congo