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ANGOLA: Homecoming not so sweet for some refugees

NAIROBI, 1 February 2005 (IRIN In-Depth) -

Landmines are a serious threat to returnees.
Credit: IRIN
With more than 160,000 Angolan refugees still waiting to return home, the UN refugee agency's repatriation programme is expected to maintain its projected pace through 2005, but will also shift its focus to help those who have made it back to re-integrate into their communities.

More than 280,000 refugees are believed to have returned since the end of the 27-year civil war in April 2002, with UNHCR directly repatriating more than 94,000 people and providing basic kits to a further 78,000 who arrived under their own initiative. The remainder went home spontaneously and received no assistance, according to figures released by the agency in December 2004.

An estimated 500,000 Angolans fled their country's brutal conflict, seeking refuge mainly in Zambia, Namibia, the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Botswana and South Africa.

Following the signing of a peace deal between the government and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola -UNITA rebel group, most were eager to return home. However, landmines, impassable roads and a shortage of food, seeds and tools - as well as education and employment opportunities - prevented or discouraged many from making the journey.

UNHCR, working with the Angolan government, the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Organisation for Migration, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and 21 NGO implementing partners, had planned to bring back 90,000 Angolans during the 2004 operation, but by the time the rainy season began and put a halt to operations back in mid-December, only 51,000 had returned.

"While conditions have improved in some locations, a number of communities remain inaccessible, particularly in northern Angola," the agency said in its Global Appeal for 2005. "More and faster road rehabilitation and demining [operations] will be required if the refugees in all the camps and settlements - in bordering countries - are to have the opportunity to return home in 2005."

UNHCR has made an agreement with Angola and the major asylum countries to try and return some 53,000 refugees remaining in camps and settlements who wish to repatriate. The agency has no plans to continue organised repatriation in 2006, although there will be a "window of opportunity" for spontaneously settled Angolan refugees to return home with UNHCR assistance.


In the meantime, UNHCR has been urging Angolans stuck in neighbouring countries not to attempt the trip on their own until the rains have cleared in May or June.

Residents of Lumbala N'Guimbo, themselves returnees, welcome new arrivals from Zambia.
Credit: IRIN

"It is too dangerous because of the poor condition of the roads and the mines," said Veronique Genaille, head of the UNHCR sub-office in Luena, the capital of the eastern province of Moxico. "We all know mines can move, so if people return on foot, it is extremely unsafe." Genaille was referring to the shifting nature of planted mines during rainy weather.

The real desire for refugees to return has been illustrated by the 100,000-plus surprise returnees who, too impatient to sit it out and wait for their name to come up on the UNHCR manifest, have made their own way back, often enduring weeks of arduous travel through the bush.

Some - like Mutaipi Kawashu, who left his home in Kaoma, Zambia, in September with his wife and four sons - endured appalling tragedies just to get their feet on Angolan soil.

Kawashu's 11-year-old son, Okumbi, drowned in the river Nengo, inside Angola, during the three-week trek to Lumbala N'Guimbo in Moxico Province, but his heartbroken father still believes he had no choice but to make the trip.

"This is our country," he said. "This is where I was born. Despite everything, I'm happy to be back."

Tough life

Few seem to have given much consideration to what they will do for work or food upon returning.

No one can deny that life for these returnees will be difficult. In Moxico, which has received the largest number of refugees, vast stretches of road are impassable, bridges are destroyed and the countryside remains littered with landmines.

The main complaint among returnees, however, is hunger.

"We are receiving only a small bucket of corn to eat and there are not enough seeds and tools to go round," said Macai Liawema, the traditional leader of Macai village on the outskirts of Lumbala N'Guimbo.

Martin Catongo, who manages the reception centre and works for Medair, UNHCR's implementing partner in Lumbala N'Guimbo, said surviving on the meager rations would be difficult for returnees.

He believes some are retracing their steps, their initial euphoria about being home in Angola turning to frustration as they struggle to feed their families.

Returnees reunited with families after being separated during the civil war.
Credit: IRIN

"Some of the returnees may have to go back to Zambia because they won't be supplied with food and they won't have enough to eat," he said. "There is a risk that they will become refugees again - not because of war, but because of hunger."

Aid workers say the "bush telegraph" is working well, with news of these difficulties reaching refugees waiting in neighbouring countries and cooling their desire to return home.

One of the reasons UNHCR fell short of its repatriation target in 2003 was that some potential returnees changed their minds and decided to wait for conditions at home to improve.

"My family is waiting for me in Zambia, but I have sent messages that they should stay there a bit longer," said 23-year-old Amos Chingumbe, who is desperately seeking work before sending for his mother, father and eight brothers and sisters.

"They want to know if the conditions are okay and they'll come later if the repatriation programme continues," Chingumbe continued. "But I'm wondering if they'll be a bit disappointed when they arrive because life here is very difficult."

His story is not unique. One Angolan NGO worker could not wait to get home, but his family will not join him for a number of years.

"When I stepped on Angolan soil it felt great," Chingumbe said. "We arrived at the border at night and although I couldn't see much, I stopped and thought, 'At last, I'm back home'."

Tackling the issues of hunger, health, education and employment, as well as the more thorny problems of discrimination and violence, will move up the UNHCR priority list in 2005 as it seeks to shift from repatriation assistance to re-integration.

Genaille's priority is the smooth integration of the refugees, which means improving services for the entire population.

"Rehabilitation is not only a question of the infrastructure," she said. "It is also necessary to reach out to the hearts and minds of people for reconciliation."

The agency has said it needs US $21.3 million to carry out its Angolan activities in 2005.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States. Republication is subject to terms and conditions as set out in the IRIN copyright page.