Longing to Go Back: Congolese returnee impressed by changes at home

News Stories, 28 July 2011

© UNHCR/C.Schmitt
Members of the Pepidi family take a lunch break during their long trip home.

DOLISIE, Republic of Congo, July 28 (UNHCR) Joseph Pepidi is staggered at the changes in his home town after living in neighbouring Gabon for the past 12 years. He's also delighted and wishes he'd returned from enforced exile earlier.

"I'm late! I should have returned earlier. I really should have returned before," the 43-year-old cried excitedly as the UNHCR truck he was riding on passed a Boeing 737 that had just landed at the airport in Dolisie, which is located in the province of Niari in south-west Republic of the Congo.

"The city grew a lot," he said, pointing to the airport, its parking aprons and runway. "I don't recognize anything. It has evolved, this is good . . . And there is electricity," added the excited father of five, a driver by profession who fled across the border during the 1997-1999 civil war in his country.

Pepidi was among a group of 51 Congolese refugees brought back home last weekend on the first convoy of a stepped-up repatriation programme organized by UNHCR. With Gabon due to announce on July 31 the end of refugee status for exiles from the Republic of Congo, the number of returnees is expected to rise further.

There are currently 9,500 Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers and UNHCR is increasing cash grants and laying on extra convoys to encourage them to return. Many are likely to be as pleasantly surprised as Pepidi was on arrival in Dolisie at the weekend, while others including three of Pepidi's children were born in exile and will be going to a homeland they have never seen.

This UNHCR reporter accompanied Pepidi and his family on the gruelling 30-hour road journey from the Haut Ogooué Region of south-east Gabon and shared some of their excitement, impatience and apprehension.

For Pepidi, it was like rediscovering his country and he named each village as the convoy rolled through. He was happy to see that a railway bridge spanning the Niari River was still standing, but upset about widespread deforestation.

After a night spent in the town of Mossendjo, about 100 kilometres inside Republic of Congo, the returnees were on the road again. Pepidi was happy to see some construction along their route. "If there are construction sites, this is good. We will not be unemployed," he reasoned.

When the convoy finally arrived in Dolisie, the third largest city in the Republic of Congo, the refugees were delighted that their long journey back was almost over. "Dolisie, the little Paris," cried 20-year-old Ferdin, who had clearly never visited the French capital.

Ferdin was only eight when his family fled to Gabon. His uncle had come from the city of Pointe-Noire on the Atlantic coast to welcome his relatives, including several children he had never met before.

Many of the returnees will live with relatives to start with, including Pepidi and his family. They will stay with Pepidi's older brother, who lives in Dolisie with his children and grandchildren. They had an emotional reunion here.

After so many years away, many of the returnees were also anxious about what they would find in their former homes and about the future. UNHCR will help the returnees get on their feet by giving them a cash grant worth the equivalent of US$200. Moreover, UNHCR teams have been sent to Dolisie and Mossedjo to monitor and support the returnees and help them reintegrate.

"We welcome the former refugees at the border and we accompany them home, ensuring that everything goes well, that they find shelter and can rebuild their lives surrounded by family and friends," Jean-Philippe Bateza, who heads the UNHCR team in Dolisie, explained.

In the next few weeks, UNHCR plans to run repatriation convoys from the Gabonese capital of Libreville and other cities, including Franceville, Moanda, Muila and Tchibanga. About 100 people have registered for the next convoy, which will set off from Franceville for Dolisie this Saturday.

Over the past decade, around 2,700 people have returned to the Republic of Congo with UNHCR help. The refugee agency and the Gabonese authorities are working together to find solutions for all refugees and asylum-seekers still living in Gabon. Those who opt to stay will receive residency permits 175 of these have already been granted but they will no longer be refugees.

By Céline Schmitt in Dolisie, Republic of Congo




UNHCR country pages

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Over the past year, the UN refugee agency has run a series of photosets on its website by American photographer Brian Sokol focusing on the possessions that refugees take with them when they are forced to flee from their homes. We started last August with Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and have since covered refugees from Syria and Mali.

Last year, Sokol visited the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ask refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) the same question: What is the most important thing you brought with you? He again received interesting answers from a wide range of people from rural and urban areas of CAR, where inter-communal violence has spiralled out of control. They are featured here and include a sandal that helped an old woman, a pair of crutches used by a man to reach safety and a boy's photo of his slain father. Another boy named the family members who escaped to safety with him as his most important possession - many would feel the same.

Tens of thousands of people have fled from CAR to neighbouring countries since December 2012, including 60,000 into northern DRC. Some 30,000 of them live in four refugee camps set up by UNHCR and the others are hosted by local families. For the majority, there was no time to pack before escaping. They fled extreme violence and chaos and arrived exhausted and traumatized in the DRC. They could take only the most essential and lightest belongings. The photos here were taken at Batanga Transit Centre, Boyabo Refugee Camp and Libenge village.

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Congo's river refugees

More than 100,000 Congolese refugees have crossed the Oubangui River in search of safety in neighbouring Republic of the Congo since inter-ethnic violence erupted in their home areas late last year. They fled from Equateur province in the north-west of Democratic Republic of the Congo after Enyele militiamen launched deadly assaults in October on ethnic Munzayas over fishing and farming rights in the Dongo area. The tensions have spread to other parts of the province.

The majority of the displaced are camping in public buildings and some 100 sites along a 600-kilometre stretch of the Oubangui River, including with host communities. The massive influx is stretching the meagre resources of the impoverished and remote region. Help is urgently needed for both the refugees and the host communities.

The relief operation is logistically complex and expensive because the region can only be reached by plane or boat. However, few boats are available and most are in need of repair. Fuel is expensive and difficult to procure.

Congo's river refugees

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Recent fighting in eastern Congo has seen thousands of civilians flee to a new camp, Bubukwanga, in neighboring Uganda.
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Refugees in Republic of Congo

UNHCR struggles to reach isolated groups of refugees who fled inter-ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 100,000 are sheltering in neighbouring Republic of Congo.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

Tens of thousands of people have reportedly fled a wave of ethnic violence in the north-west of the embattled Democratic Republic of the Congo. The civilians have fled from Equateur province, crossing the Ubangi River and seeking shelter in Republic of the Congo.