Homecoming joy for returnees, but what next?

[Angola] Returnees unloading goods.
Several thousand Angolans have returned home (IRIN)

Janet Adelhe squeals with delight as she sees her aunt and uncle step off the plane. After hugs, a few tears and effusive clapping, they sit down to catch up on years of missed news.

Albertina and Augusto Mundongo, both elderly, have been travelling for days from the Mehebe refugee camp in Zambia, and have just completed the latest stage of their journey to Lumbala N'Guimbo on an International Organisation for Migration (IOM) cargo plane.

"I am very happy," said 25-year-old Janet, cheerfully posing for photographs and giving the thumbs-up sign. "This is my aunt and uncle, this is my cousin, and these are her children. Now I am just waiting for my mother and sister to come and we will be a family again."

The Mundongos, along with around 90 other returnees, head for the reception centre where they will spend three days getting their registration papers, collecting food, non-food rations and seeds and tools kits as well as receiving tips on reintegration, hygiene and HIV/AIDS.

As they gingerly step down from trucks belonging to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), they are welcomed by longer-term residents who have crowded around the centre's perimeter fencing, eager to get a glimpse of the latest arrivals.

A testimony to the success of the UN refugee agency's repatriation and assistance programmes, around 274,000 Angolan refugees have returned home since war ended in April 2002, leaving around 167,000 still in the main asylum countries of Zambia, Namibia and the two Congos.

Almost two thirds of those who have come back have been helped by UNHCR and its partners, including the Angolan government, World Food Programme (WFP), IOM, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and several NGO's such as Medair, UNHCR's implementing partner in the Lumbala N'Guimbo region.

But more than 100,000 have made their own way back home, often enduring weeks of arduous travel through the hazardous bush.

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

"We walked all the way. I don't know exactly how far it was but it took us three weeks. Those three weeks were very, very difficult. My family and I didn't eat very much and we were - and still are - very tired," he said.

Kawashu lost one of his boys during the journey - 11-year-old Okumbi drowned in the river Nengo on the way here - but for him, like many other Angolans, the top priority was getting home to Angola.

"At the moment I'm not feeling okay - but life goes on. My parents passed away, my boy passed away but what can I do? I'm very happy to be back. I have waited a long, long time, and now I am here. This is our country. This is where I was born. All I can do now is make a new home for the family I have left," he said.

This deep desire to return overlooks the fact that there is very little in place to help returnees rebuild their lives. Few of those coming home seem to have given much thought to how they will get by once they arrive at their final destinations.

"You should stop asking us about the future - what will we eat, where we will work," said one visibly irritated man as he boarded the IOM flight to Cangamba, his final stop. "The most important thing is for us to go home."

Life for these returnees will certainly be tough. In Moxico province, scene of heavy fighting during the war, vast stretches of road are impassable, bridges are destroyed, and the countryside is littered with landmines.

Many are returning to remote communes which all but emptied during the war and have poor access to the rest of the country.

In Lumbala N'Guimbo, they discover that WFP rations are being cut, there are insufficient seeds and tools kits to go round and employment and education opportunities are few and far between. In Cangamba, they are almost completely isolated, with no international help on the ground.

Ask any returnee who has lived in this region for more than a couple of months about their living conditions, and they will complain of hunger and lack of health, education and employment opportunities, many arguing that the international community is not doing enough to help them resettle.

"Life is difficult and we are a worried about our future," grumbled Mateus Boma, a 23-year-old resident of Dangereux, near Lumbala N'Guimbo. "We're hungry, there is too little food, not enough seeds and tools, there are no work projects, we don't have clothes, there are not enough water points and few health posts. What are you doing about it?," he asked.

Humanitarian workers are sympathetic despite being constantly bombarded with complaints and requests for more assistance. They understand that after 20 years or more as refugees, switching the mindset away from handouts could prove difficult.

"These people have been refugees for so many years. They are so dependent on receiving aid. Of course they are happy to return but the euphoria disappears as they learn that they have to become independent," said Veronique Genaille, Head of the UNHCR sub-office in the eastern Luena.

Angola's slowpace of reconstruction and development has prompted some to question whether the refugees came back too soon, before their motherland was ready to receive them. But all agree that rebuilding roads and bridges should be a priority.

"One of the biggest needs is access to Luena so that traders can bring foods, seeds and other items," said Marc Andre Gagnebin, Deputy Country Director for Medair.

"Especially in these vast and far-reaching provinces of Angola, the economy is not strong enough to provide everything that an individual needs. It is difficult to find jobs to support a family," agreed Pedro Tavares, UNHCR Field Officer in Lumbal N'Guimbo.

A number of proposals involving UNHCR, WFP and NGOs are under consideration and UNHCR, which has already helped rehabilitate airstrips and reconstruct roads to facilitate the repatriation process, intends to focus more on development projects next year.

"There will be more reintegration projects in 2005 as the number of returnees scales down," Tavares said. "We are preparing ourselves for quick impact projects including education (Portuguese literacy), reconstruction of bridges, improving access to key places," he added.

Medair's Gagnebin would also like to see more development projects in the area of agriculture. He believes most of those returning home are hard-working, industrious people, who simply need pointing in the right direction if they are to build a new life in Angola.

"A lot of returnees have good basic agricultural knowledge from the camps in Zambia, but Lumbala N'Guimbo really needs an agricultural NGO to work on development projects, to carry out follow-up and monitoring and to make sure resources are used in the best way possible, with seed banks etc and ," he said.

The outlook for the future may seem gloomy - it certainly will not be easy for many returnees to get back on their feet reintegrate - but everyone is trying to look on the bright side.

"You have to be more positive than negative. In just over two years, Angola is a stable country with peace. The truth is people are coming back and rebuilding their lives," UNHCR's Tavares said.

Even the complaining Boma would rather live in poor conditions in Angola than move anywhere else. "We'll be here forever, even though life is difficult. This is our home," he said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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