BUELA, Angola, Feb 21 (Reuters) - They are trading a life of squalor in one war-battered African country for one of hardship and uncertainty in another. But at least they can now suffer at home.
A year after UNITA rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was killed by government forces, triggering the end of Angola's civil war, those uprooted by the conflict are starting to trickle home from places like the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
"Life here is even worse than it was in the Congo," said Maria Maingi, who was born in the Angolan border town of Buela and came home a year ago after five years in exile.
But she would rather suffer at home than in a foreign land.
Maingi, who nurses her tiny baby, is one of Angola's more than 90,000 "spontaneous returnees" from Congo, Zambia and Namibia.
Having fled their home land because of the ruinous 27-year civil war, they are now returning, unassisted, ahead of a United Nations programme of voluntary repatriation.
Angola's war, which killed around a million people, also displaced millions internally.
This year the UN's refugee agency will help 170,000 Angolans return home and thousands more will get help in 2004 and 2005.
Life in the Congo -- a poverty-stricken nation that has been devastated by its own civil war which dragged in several neighbouring countries, including Angola -- must have been rough because it is certainly no picnic in Buela.
Children play barefoot inside the ruins of red brick houses overgrown with vegetation.
The main administrative building in town has no roof and there are no shops. A lonely medical post has no medicines.
For many returnees, this dusty border town is just a stopping point for the trek south to their homes scattered across this southwest African country, which was formerly a Portuguese colony.
The road south from Buela to nearby Cuimba has been considered a death trap because of mines, one of the war's many grim legacies.
Charred remains of vehicles that have been blown up by anti-tank mines testify to the dangers of the route.
That hasn't stopped thousands of Angolans from walking the 30 km (18 miles) from the Congolese border to the municipality of Cuimba which is similarly devastated by war and doesn't seem to have much more to offer.
According to Joao Lumonawo Batazona, Cuimba's director for immigration, around 6,000 people have come here from two border entry points since April last year, when UNITA and the government signed a ceasefire.
"They come by foot, with lots of baggage. When they arrive, they don't get any help. We don't have any food here because of the war. The local community has nothing to give them," he said.
Graca Mimosa Domingas sits outside the crowded home she now shares with more than 20 others, while other women roast corn cobs on an open fire in the scorching tropical sun.
Domingas came back in June last year because she was worried that other returnees might build a house on her plot of land if she didn't hurry.
"But I've hardly been able to build a thing -- I'm hoping my sons will come back to Angola soon to help," she said.
HOME SWEET HOME?
Three weeks ago, Angelo Makiesse, a policeman who dreams of becoming a mechanic, was reunited with his family.
He stayed in Cuimba throughout the war while they fled to the Congo in 1999, where they have been ever since.
When he realised that peace was here to stay, Makiesse sent a small radio to his family which they sold to pay for transport from the Kilueka refugee camp in the Congo to Buela.
They walked the last 30 km (18 miles) to Cuimba.
His 18-year-old sister Paulina Nsimba was not impressed. She says she will go to the capital, Luanda, to find a better life.
"I want to study there. I didn't finish school because of the war...Cuimba has been totally destroyed. It was nothing like this in the past," she said.
The municipality's population of around 15,000 has twelve schools, one hospital and most of its buildings are barely standing, wrecked by war and seventeen attacks by UNITA rebels.
There are no books, no doctors and no transport to take the sick to the provincial capital, Mbanza Congo, 65 km (40 miles) down a dirt road that only a four-wheel drive could attempt.
Twenty-five children died reportedly of anaemia in January but aid agencies say that malaria may have been the real cause of death.
AN EXPENSIVE TRIP
Many returnees arriving in Cuimba complain of harassment on the Congolese side.
"They say there are many checkpoints there, making them pay money, taking away their possessions and clothes," said UNHCR protection officer Anne Makome after meeting some of the returnees in Cuimba.
She said that although people are desperate to come home, the minimum conditions are not yet in place for their safe and dignified return.
"And this is something we cannot do alone," she added.
Cuimba's administrator, Lindo Manzambi Benjamin, has done what he can to begin rebuilding the town. But he says he can't do it alone either.
"Now that this (peace transition) period has passed, we can concentrate on rebuilding our country," he said -- work that takes on new urgency as Angola braces itself to welcome what could be tens of thousands of returnees in the next few months.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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