Angolan refugees head home as organised repatriation enters final stage
KIOWA RECEPTION CENTRE, Angola, September 28 (UNHCR) - Rhythmic clapping and singing flowed from one of three trucks in which 117 returning Angolan refugees set off on the final stage of their journey home after years of exile in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The UN refugee agency's organized repatriation programme, which has helped 112,000 Angolans return in the last three years, is entering its final stages. This was the last movement by road planned from the Kiowa Reception Centre, on the outskirts of M'Banza Congo, the capital of Angola's northern Zaire province.
At seven o'clock in the morning, excitement filled the air as the convoy prepared to leave. It was the end of a long wait for the 41 families. Some people, like Brigitte Maonga, stayed only three weeks in transit in the camp, but had been waiting their entire lives to get back to Angola.
Born of Angolan parents 36 years ago in Kasangulu in the DRC, and married to an Angolan, Maonga does not speak Portuguese, the colonial language used throughout Angola. But she is optimistic, despite speaking only French, used in DRC, and some Kikongo, the local language in the north-west of Angola.
"I am excited and happy," Maonga said a few minutes before departure, explaining that she had always wanted to reach the land where her parents were born. "I am full of hope. I am courageous. I know it will be good."
Maonga was already making plans: "I can't work on the land, because of a recent appendicitis operation, but I will trade in the local market."
The return was mixed with a tinge of sadness for refugees who had shared hardships and were now heading in different directions. In a nearby van, which was to transport returnees still recovering from health problems, Domingos Luis Faa promised his friend Pedro they would meet again someday.
Domingos and Pedro met over 10 years ago in Kasangulu in the DRC, close to the Angolan border, after fleeing in one of the many waves of refugees created by the worsening war in Angola - which is subdivided locally into 'first war,' 'second war,' 'third war' and so on.
They then worked side by side as peasants on plots of land belonging to Congolese farmers. The decade in the DRC did not bring them wealth: they had to hand over half of all their produce to the farm owners.
This year they got their chance to go home when UNHCR organized the return of 2,500 non-camp based returnees, after the closure of the refugee camps in Kilueka and N'Kondo, in the Bas Congo area in DRC.
Domingos was heading back to the village of Kifafa in Uíge, with his wife and two sons. Pedro was still waiting to be airlifted to Huambo, in the Central Highlands. They exchanged directions not knowing when or if they would meet again.
Singing church songs in the truck, Luhango Tila was one of a handful of returnees who could speak fluent Portuguese. Two days earlier, the refugee who had been living in Kasangulu since 1998 was complaining about the two weeks he and his family had to spend in transit in Kiowa Centre. Now he was happy.
"Very much so. We have kikuanga [a corn-based paste common in the area] to eat on the trip and we are going home," he said. "I will work selling stuff from door to door, and I am dreaming to go to Luanda, to visit part of my family who moved there during the war."
The convoy was scheduled to travel for three days, heading first to the south to take two families home in Bengo Province, then up to Uíge town in the north-west. Those returnees heading to rural areas beyond the town would then be transported on the last phase of their journey by government trucks.
Two trucks loaded with food rations from the World Food Programme - three months of rations for each family - were waiting nearby. The trucks and vans took up their positions, and the last organized repatriation convoy from Kiowa set off.
UNHCR's organized repatriation operation in Angola will end in early 2006. Kiowa is the first transit centre to have said goodbye to its last repatriating group. From now on, Kiowa will receive only spontaneous returnees - those returning from exile on their own. The nights when up to a thousand returnees populated Kiowa are over.
But another big operation will start soon at another reception centre in the north. From the first week of October, Sakandica, in Uíge province, will receive returnees from Kimvula refugee camp in the DRC along newly rehabilitated roads and bridges. Some 6,000 Angolans are expected to cross the border and return home in UNHCR-organised convoys.
In addition to the 112,000 Angolan refugees who have returned in an organised manner, a further 84,500 spontaneous returnees have gone back since 2002.
By Maria Benevides