Feature: Angolans confident about repatriation, says UNHCR
But according to emergency officials from the UN refugee agency who just spent two and a half months in Angola, the mood this time seems to be different despite the many odds.
"The local people have enormous confidence that it will work," says emergency team member Alessandro Bolzoni. "They complained to us about the lack of material help, infrastructure and medical services, but they said they no longer feared for their safety."
Aid workers estimate that 70,000 people, encouraged by peace and a promise of stability, have already trickled back to their country without waiting for the official repatriation scheduled to start in May 2003. They began going back in spring after the Angolan government and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) rebels signed a landmark peace agreement ending 27 years of conflict.
The war has uprooted nearly one-third of Angola's 10.8 million inhabitants. Many have been displaced numerous times during periods of intense fighting, separated by spells of relative calm.
Bolzoni says aid agencies are worried that a rushed return, especially to mine-infested areas, could put returnees at risk. "How can we expect them to go to places where we ourselves are afraid to go?" he says, adding that large areas of northern and eastern Angola, as well as parts of the south, are inaccessible after all bridges were blown up.
UNHCR officials warn that those going back are returning to a devastated country with a shattered infrastructure and virtually no medical facilities, schools or employment opportunities. Many of them were born in exile and have never seen their country. Portuguese - Angola's official language - is now being taught as a foreign language in refugee camps in Zambia.
"In those camps there are people who fled to Zambia almost 40 years ago, during Angola's war of independence against Portugal. Their children speak English but not Portuguese," says Christine Neveu, who led the UNHCR emergency team to Angola.
On November 28, the UN refugee agency signed separate agreements with Namibia and Zambia under a programme for the voluntary return of Angolan refugees in southern Africa. The repatriation movements are due to start by May or June 2003, once the rainy season is over.
An estimated 170,000 people are expected to go home with UNHCR's help next year. The agency is seeking $34.4 million to help the refugees return and to rehabilitate some of the very remote areas they are going back to. The repatriation, which will continue at least through 2004, could eventually prove to be one of the biggest in recent years, with up to 450,000 refugees going back home from Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Congo, as well as Namibia and South Africa.
Neveu says those trickling back to Angola arrive in their villages only to find that nothing is there. "They have absolutely nothing and they go back to nothing," she says, adding that she met an Angolan family who had just returned from exile in Zambia and were so ashamed of their poverty that they refused to have their picture taken.