Emotions run high as a convoy of four trucks crosses the River Lueta to reach Kananga city in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Parents point at the water and children look on excitedly. Many have not seen their homeland in years. The youngest ones may have never seen it at all.
About 2,500 Congolese returnees have travelled from Lóvua refugee settlement in Angola as part of an ongoing voluntary repatriation to the Kasai region organized by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, that will bring some 4,000 refugees home.
“I am glad that my baby will be born at home,” says Ngalula Antho, a young expectant mother riding in an ambulance provided by UNHCR for the most vulnerable.
It is an 11–hour drive on rough and bumpy roads and dirt paths transformed into muddy streams when seasonal rains fall.
Mothers and fathers lie beside their children on foam mattresses laid out at the back of the trucks to make the ride a little more comfortable. Occasionally, people burst into song.
“I am glad that my baby will be born at home.”
The trucks arrive at dusk. Families are overjoyed to see each other again.
“This is my big sister, and this is my brother-in-law. I haven’t seen them in three or four years!” Francine, 40, tells UNHCR over the sound of dozens of other families greeting each other cheerfully at the Kananga central station in Kasai.
“We are very happy to be back in Kananga, the land of our ancestors! We will do everything we can so that our children can go to school,” says a man travelling in the convoy with his children.
UNHCR provides immediate assistance for the exhausted returnees.
“We are happy that these refugees were able to come home, after years of exile,” explains UNHCR Protection Officer, Guening Massama. “They will now need support in their areas of return. We need to think of reintegration projects, which also involve displaced people and the local population to ensure that their return is durable.”
Kasai is slowly recovering from fighting in 2017 that displaced some 1.4 million people from their homes. Over 35,000 refugees also fled the violence to Angola.
Since August 2019, about 14,500 people have spontaneously returned from Lóvua settlement, in addition to those who are being voluntarily repatriated through UNHCR.
Although UNHCR gave them cash assistance, registered their numbers and helped them with transport where possible, many still face extremely difficult conditions. They walked for days, sleeping on roadsides and carrying all their belongings. Some families who returned spontaneously are uncertain about where to go, or fear going back to their homes.
“Many pregnant women, old and vulnerable people started going on the roads to leave Angola,” recalls Rose, 54, who also decided to come back with her husband and children before organized convoys started.
“When, we arrived, we stayed with host families and in churches. Some churches were hosting five families, some hosted ten,” she adds.
The organized returns began in October last year, following a Tripartite Agreement between UNHCR and the Governments of Angola and DRC. UNHCR aims to complete the exercise in the first quarter of 2020, reaching roughly 19,000 returnees.
A few weeks after their return, UNHCR visited families in Tshikapa, a city in Kasai where many chose to return to.
Being home is a relief but even with the assistance to cover their basic needs, many are still struggling.
Chadrack Neta lives in a rented house with four of his children; one of his daughters went missing during the conflict. He also lost his farm and property when they fled Kasai. Another daughter now walks with crutches after she was attacked by armed men and his wife was shot and still needs critical medical assistance.
“Before the war, I owned a farm...I do not know how I will ever get it back.”
“Before the war, I owned a farm where I had pigs, chicken, sheep and many other things,” says Chadrack. “I even had a fish farm. I once received a call saying that my farm had now been given to someone else. I do not know how I will ever get it back.”
He adds that when the family returned, they received some money from UNHCR which he used to pay school fees for his children.
“However, it is too little to buy shoes, clothes or school uniforms,” he explains. “I have a disabled daughter – how can I even buy crutches? They are expensive here. Their mother has a bullet in her body and she needs surgery, X-rays and medical exams. It is expensive.”
Assiya, another returnee who came back to Tshikapa with her husband Moussa and their three children, adds that the cash assistance is not enough.
“We paid four months of rent in advance with the money given to us,” she says. “We are wondering what we will do afterwards, since we are renting and our money is running out.”
Thousands of returnees are looking for lasting solutions to help them restart their lives.
The DRC needs more investment and support in its efforts to improve public infrastructure like schools, health centers and social services, which in turn will ensure a safe and dignified return for Congolese refugees who choose to come back home.