UN News Service (New York)
February 27, 2007
Posted to the web February 27, 2007
When she stepped off a ferry last Friday in the eastern port of Baraka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Elizabeth Ibengo became the 25,000th refugee to be repatriated from Tanzania since the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began a return programme in October 2005.
Ms. Ibengo, 24, was one of almost 500 refugees who took the eight-hour boat ride across Lake Tanganyika and then transported to their home regions 130 kilometres away from Baraka this weekend. Accompanied by her two-year-old son, Ms. Ibengo, who was forced to flee the fighting in her home village in South Kivu province a decade ago, will rejoin her husband who returned last year to build a family home.
In a related development, UN High Commissioner for Refugees AntÃ'nio Guterres today greeted over 401 Congolese refugees them in their native tongue Kiswahili as they returned to their homeland from Tanzania. "Karibu sana, karibu sana, karibu sana," or "you are very welcome," he said, as the returnees came ashore from a boat in Baraka.
This group of refugees was carried to their home country by a former German imperial warship, believed to be the oldest working vessel in the world. Although the MV Liemba, originally commissioned in 1912 as the Graf von Poetzen, has sunk twice, it was resuscitated as a transport ship in the 1970s.
The High Commissioner's visit is part of an unprecedented joint mission to the region with the head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), James Morris, and the Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), Ann Veneman.
"There is no task that is more noble than helping people go back to their homeland," Mr. Guterres said after meeting with the newly-repatriated Congolese. "The solidarity of the international community" must now assist these refugees who have returned to their war-ravaged homeland. The three heads of their respective UN agencies also served rice and beans donated by WFP to school children who also recently returned to the DRC.
One teenager expressed her gratitude for the UN's assistance, but said that problems persist. "Many pupils are forced to drop out because of the inability of parents to pay school fees," the student at M'Shimbakye Primary School said. "The school has not been totally rehabilitated and we don't have enough school books." In the next stop in the schedule, Mr. Guterres, Mr. Morris and Ms. Veneman will travel to the Rwandan capital of Kigali to meet with President Paul Kagame.
After years of violence - the brutal civil war which ended in 1999 cost 4 million lives - much of the infrastructure in South Kivu province, which played host to a great deal of the fighting, is in a state of disarray, compounding the challenges posed to newly-repatriated Congolese. To this end, UNHCR is working to improve the livelihoods of returnees through activities to bolster their incomes, micro-credit schemes and rebuilding public services. One such returnee who has benefited greatly from the agency's programmes is Monisha Naboska, who returned to South Kivu from Tanzania.
"I brought enough cash with me to establish a restaurant, but I needed more help to get it started," she said. However, with a loan from ACTED, a French non-governmental organization (NGO) and UNCHR partner, Ms. Naboska and five partners found success when they opened the restaurant. She can now afford to feed her children and send them to school.
Over 2,000 refugees returned to the DRC from Tanzania this year. Voluntary repatriations of refugees first began from the Central African Republic (CAR) in October 2004, and then in April 2004 from the Republic of the Congo. To date, almost 90,000 refugees have returned to the DRC, and almost half of them have received UNHCR assistance. However, more than 400,000 Congolese still reside outside the country's borders.