More than 25,000 refugees return from Republic of Congo since May

Briefing Notes, 2 October 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 2 October 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR has helped more than 25,000 Congolese return to their homes in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from neighbouring Republic of Congo under a voluntary repatriation programme that was launched in May.

The 25,000 mark was passed last Friday (the current total of those helped back by UNHCR is 25,696). UNHCR hopes to repatriate a further 24,000 more refugees, mostly from Equateur province, across the Oubangui River to the DRC by the end of this year, plus a further 32,000 next year.

Currently, there are more than 100,000 Congolese refugees still in Republic of Congo. They have been living in isolated areas along the river since fleeing ethnic clashes in Equateur province in 2009.

At the height of the crisis, about 143,000 Congolese fled their villages for safety in neighbouring countries 123,000 in Republic of Congo and 20,000 in the Central African Republic when clashes erupted between the Munzaya and Enyele groups over traditional fishing and farming rights.

An additional 100,000 Congolese were displaced inside Equateur province but most returned home when conditions improved. A few thousand refugees also returned on their own from the Republic of Congo and from Central African Republic.

UNHCR has picked up the pace of returns since July, adding a second weekly convoy to take people across the river and home. Returnees tell UNHCR staff that they believe the security situation has improved while parents say they want to go back to enroll their young children in primary schools.

In addition to an aid package provided to each family on arrival, UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations have initiated reintegration activities, especially in the Libenge and Kungu territories, to help ensure a sustainable return. So far, and with a limited budget, UNHCR and its partners have distributed 700 shelter kits for spontaneous returnees and have also built 350 shelters and 12 wells for the most vulnerable households as well as primary schools. Awareness campaigns aimed at ensuring peaceful co-existence between the various communities have been undertaken.

Equateur is one of the most remote provinces in the country, lacking basic socio-economic structures and infrastructure. UNHCR has appealed for development actors to help strengthen the reintegration activities.

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Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

Edwige Kpomako is a woman in a hurry; but her energy also helps the refugee from Central African Republic (CAR) to cope with the tragedy that forced her to flee to northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year. Before violence returned to her country in 2012, the 25-year-old was studying for a Masters in American literature in Bangui, and looking forward to the future. "I started my thesis on the works of Arthur Miller, but because of the situation in CAR . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off. Instead, she had to rush to the DRC with a younger brother, but her fiancée and 10-year old son were killed in the inter-communal violence in CAR.

After crossing the Oubangui River to the DRC, Edwige was transferred to Mole, a camp housing more than 13,000 refugees. In a bid to move on with her life and keep busy, she started to help others, assume a leadership role and take part in communal activities, including the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. She heads the women's committee, is engaged in efforts to combat sexual violence, and acts as a liaison officer at the health centre. She also teaches and runs a small business selling face creams. "I discovered that I'm not weak," said Edwige, who remains optimistic. She is sure that her country will come out of its nightmare and rebuild, and that she will one day become a human rights lawyer helping refugees.

American photojournalist Brian Sokol took these photos.

Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

Batalimo to Batanga and Beyond: Congolese Return Home from CAR

Over the past month, almost 6,300 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have left the Batalimo camp in the troubled Central African Republic and returned voluntarily to their homes in Equateur province. Their decision to go back is a further sign of the gravity of the situation in Central African Republic, where escalated violence since December has left hundreds of thousands internally displaced and forced almost 350,000 to flee to neighbouring countries. The refugees at Batalimo were among some 20,000 Congolese who had fled to the Central African Republic to escape inter-ethnic conflict back home. The return operation from Batalimo had been postponed several times for security and logistical reasons, but on April 10 the first convoy headed across the Oubangui River. The last arrived in the DRC on May 10. The UN refugee agency organized transportation of the refugees from Batalimo to the Central African Republic riverside town of Zinga, where they boarded boats for the crossing to Batanga or Libenge in Equateur province. In Batanga, the returnees were registered, provided with documentation and given a cash grant to help them reintegrate. They were then transported to their villages, where they will be monitored. Photographer Leonora Baumann followed one group back to the DRC.

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2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres presented Sister Angélique Namaika of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award at a gala ceremony in Geneva on Monday night.

Sister Angélique, through her Centre for Reintegration and Development, has helped transform the lives of more than 2,000 women and girls who had been forced from their homes and abused by fighters of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) or other armed groups. Many of those she helps suffered abduction, forced labour, beatings, murder, rape or other human rights abuses.

The Roman Catholic nun helps survivors to heal by offering them the chance to learn a trade, start a small business or go to school. Testimonies from these women show the remarkable effect she has had on helping turn around their lives, with many affectionately calling her "mother."

The Award ceremony featured a keynote speech from best-selling author Paulo Coelho and musical performances by singer-songwriter Dido, Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna and Grammy-nominated Malian musicians, Amadou and Mariam.

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