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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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Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

People in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Katanga province have long referred to the region between the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto as the "triangle of death." Despite the presence of UN peace-keepers and government military successes in other parts of the country, the situation in the resources-rich Katanga has been getting worse over the past two years. Conflict between a secessionist militia group and the government and between the Luba (Bantu) and Twa (Pygmy) ethnic groups has left thousands dead and forcibly displaced more than 400,000 people since 2012, including over 70,000 in the last three months. UNHCR has expressed its "deep concern" about the "catastrophic" humanitarian situation in northern Katanga. The violence includes widescale looting and burning of entire villages and human rights' violations such as murder, mass rape and other sexual violence, and the forced military recruitment of children.

The limited presence of humanitarian and development organizations is a serious problem, leading to insufficient assistance to displaced people who struggle to have access to basic services. There are 28 sites hosting the displaced in northern Katanga and many more displaced people live in host communities. While UNHCR has built some 1,500 emergency shelters since January, more is needed, including access to health care, potable water, food and education. The following striking photographs by Brian Sokol for UNHCR show some of the despair and suffering.

Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

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

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