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Refugees return to northern Congo, but concerns remain

News Stories, 5 December 2012

© UNHCR/S.Lubuku
One of the ferries used by UNHCR to take refugee returnees across the Oubangui River at Dongo.

DONGO, Democratic Republic of the Congo, December 5 (UNHCR) Martine is understandably nervous about her decision to return home. "It has been more than three years since I left here and it will be not easy to rebuild my life," she tells UNHCR after stepping off a boat on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) side of the Oubangui River. "It worries me."

The 34-year-old later looks anxiously for a familiar face among the crowd of people waiting at a transit centre in the town of Dongo to welcome the latest returnees from across the water. She doesn't recognize anyone.

Martine and her two children had fled the other way across the Oubangui and sought refuge in Republic of the Congo, along with tens of thousands of other civilians, when inter-ethnic clashes erupted in DRC's Equateur province in 2009. The violence between the Munzaya and Enyele tribes centred on traditional fishing and farming rights and forced more than 140,000 people to flee to Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

A further 100,000 people were displaced within Equateur but most have returned home as conditions improved. UNHCR has been involved in conflict resolution and reconciliation efforts in Equateur, including funding a new community radio station in Dongo last year. The refugee agency also supports efforts to ease the reintegration of returnees.

But those in neighbouring countries, like Martine, have been slower to return. In May this year, UNHCR launched a voluntary repatriation programme for the tens of thousands still in the Republic of Congo. By late November, more than 39,000 had returned home and the refugee agency aimed to bring home another 11,000 by years end followed by 32,000 next year.

Martine readily admits that she put off returning for a long time, "but we were told that everything is going well now." Her husband decided to remain in the Republic of the Congo because he was worried about his safety.

Still, lots of questions ran through Martine's mind. "How would I be able to get back alone with my two children to a normal life? Could I find a plot of land to cultivate? Would I be accepted in this environment?" She says many other women with children share her worries.

They include, 30-year-old Suzanne, who worries about schooling for her three children and about how her family will cope once their three months of food rations from the World Food Programme have been exhausted. The returnees also received non-food items from UNHCR. "We hope that we will not be abandoned," she says, adding that if she gets back her land: "I could farm at least and feed my family." The returnees are also given and seeds and agricultural tools by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

In addition to the aid package provided to each returnee family on arrival here or elsewhere in Equateur province, UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations have initiated reintegration activities, especially in the Libenge and Kungu territories where most people are coming back to.

These address some of the concerns voiced by Martine and Suzanne about shelter and education, but more needs to be done with the support of the international community.

So far, and with a limited budget, UNHCR and its partners have distributed 700 shelter kits for spontaneous returnees and have also built primary schools as well as 350 shelters and 12 wells for the most vulnerable households. Awareness campaigns aimed at ensuring peaceful co-existence between the various communities have been conducted.

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

"We understand the concern of these women and of all the returnees, but at the same time we have limited resources," stressed Geert Van De Castelle, head of the UNHCR office in Dongo, while calling for more funding help.

By Simplice Kpandji in Dongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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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.

Batalimo to Batanga and Beyond: Congolese Return Home from CAR

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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