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The Long Journey Home: Angola's Refugee Return

[Angola] The strong desire to go home has lured many millions of Angolan refugees back.
It remains a hard life for most rural Angolans (Debbie Morello/WFP)

On April 4 2002, UNITA rebels signed a ceasefire agreement with the Angolan government, bringing to an end 30 years of civil war.

Following the ceasefire millions of war-weary refugees and internally displaced people began the long journey home.

But even with the advent of peace, the legacy of war looms large over Angola and its people.

“Yeah, this is the last day being in Zambia, after 24 years here in Zambia. Because I’ve never been away from this place – I was born here, I did all my school just here – I never went out – so for this to be the last day being here I cant really believe it - its like a dream.”

Since the end of Angola’s devastating civil-war, millions of people like Celestine have made the long journey home.

For them, returning to Angola means more than the simple joy of going home - it means the end of life as a refugee.

“Being a refugee, just the name itself a refugee, is a sad name. When someone is called a refugee it is really someone who is chased from his own original country and then goes to a neighbouring country. And in that neighbouring country maybe he doesn’t have freedom to do anything that he feels like.”

“So I have hope that there everything will be okay. I’m going to do my best that I’m going to gain a living, a good one that I had here.”

But for Celestine and his fellow returnees the imminent journey home also brings fear – fear of the unfamiliar, fear of the unknown, fear that the fighting could yet resume.

“People like us we are not used to running away so although we are going we are just happy – because we are told that country is rich in minerals you know we are just happy to go there but fear is there – fear of war is there.”

In Luau town, Moxico province, the scars of war are still fresh. Moxico bore the brunt of some of the war’s heaviest fighting and its people have paid a heavy price. Even though the war has now ended the challenges they face resettling here are formidable.

Angola’s health and education sectors are in ruin after years of war and neglect and in most cases the social services that refugees enjoyed in the camps are vastly superior to those that await them on return.

“Angola signed a peace accord about two and a half years ago in April 2002 and since then the amount of movement in the country has really been extraordinary – about 3.8 million people have already returned home. But once they get home the question is what do they find when they get there.

“People are returning to places where their homes have been destroyed, where all infrastructure has been destroyed. There are no houses, there are no health posts, there are no schools – all the things that need to be in place so that people can reestablish their livelihoods.

“And because of that, when people are returning they are clinging to the provincial centres and municipal centers where those resources are available.”

Robert Kayombo, came back to Angola 6 months ago – he says that shortages of food and lack of schools are the most urgent problems.

“Many people are coming from Congo and Zambia. I think there is at least 20 or 30 thousand people and what they need is food. That food which is given to the people is not enough for them.

“And on the part of education in Congo and in Zambia most of the children have educated well and most of them have completed the schools, but here we are seeing many pupils and less of them are going to school.”

And with the vast majority of returnees clinging to the few towns and cities where limited facilities do exist, the ability of these already vulnerable communities to cope is tested once again.

But a darker danger awaits the millions of people returning home – land mines.

Throughout Angola millions of mines remain hidden underground where they lie in wait for the unsuspecting.

A number of demining groups are working throughout the country to try and clear this, the cruelest legacy of Angola’s 30-year civil war, but they are the first to admit the enormity of the challenge they face.

Theresa Tavares works for the British based charity, Mines Advisory Group, or MAG.

“The situation is Moxico I think its public knowledge that Moxico is one of the most heavily mined provinces in Angola – a lot of fighting went on in Moxico since the ‘70’s all the way till the end of the war. The situation in Luau is quite problematic at the moment due to the big influx of returnees coming from Congo and Zambia.

“People are returning and there are many minefields and they are building their houses inside the minefields. Mainly because of lack of land in Luau the majority of the people want to be based as I said in Luau – the demand for land is big this is where the old neighbourhoods where they used to live before and they want to return to their land of origin and unfortunately the mines are there.”

Simao Ventura is one of MAGs team leaders. His team is currently working in an area of Luau called Jiga where many returnees have settled.

“The yellow sticks mark the places were we have found mines here in Jiga.”

In order to clear the minefields as fast as possible MAG is constantly recruiting and training new deminers – many of whom are ex-combatants.

Pinto is one such trainee and after today’s training session he travels to the Luau reception center.

And as he arrives at the center he sees that a new convoy of returnees has just come in from the Zambian border, including Celestine and his family.

After registering their arrival they are directed to the assembly hall where Pinto and his colleagues are preparing a mine-awareness demonstration.

Outside the assembly hall, a remarkable reunion takes place when Celestine’s mother recognises Pinto as an uncle of Celestine. They have not seen one another for more than 16 years.

“These are the moments of happiness in my life. Immediately you see someone who you have stayed with him for a long time and then you missed him – you know what always comes to my mind is happiness - for example the way we have found my uncle here.”

The following day Pinto takes his nephew to an area of Luau called Retornados where many returnees are settling, to see for himself the very real danger of land mines and to offer some advice.

“The place which you are going to be given to stay, please check if there is a sign of mines don’t be there my brother – do you understand.”

“So it’s a dangerous situation like this to stay in a place like this – that’s why I’m very very surprised to see a post just behind the house and then they construct their house like that and with a big family like this so I’m very surprised and you know it’s a dangerous situation.”

But despite the prevalence of mines in Retornados the people keep coming. Vesa Mwangala is the Soba, or chief, of Retornados.

“I have told the authorities that we have no more space to accommodate people, but they keep sending them.

We even go to the reception center and tell them that there is no space here and too many mines, but still they come.”

Apart from the mines, how does Celestine feel about being home for the first time in his life?

“I’m very happy to see people around, seeing different types of building, how good it has been some years ago seeing trucks that have been burned, a train, you know in my life I’ve never even seen a train and I’ve seen it, things like that, I’m very happy about it.”

“You know I’m feeling as if I’m not even a refugee again, anyway that fear is going slowly, slowly. I know for sure I’m not feeling as if I’m a refugee anymore, otherwise I feel as if this is really my country.”

“This country is really destroyed, there are buildings that are completely destroyed, families are really separated, so we need organisations, we need other people to donate and then help people around here, they are really suffering and we need to rebuild – there is a lot that we need to do in this country.”

But if Angola’s safe passage to peace and development is to be assured it will require more than the effort of returnees like Celestine.

Although the humanitarian emergency is finally over Angola faces a structural emergency that presents almost as many challenges to the country’s future stability.

And if these challenges are not effectively met there are no guarantees that Angola will not once more slide into crisis.

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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