The 11 buses were sent off by the Deputy Minister of Zambia's North-Western Province, Mr. Bert Mushala, amid traditional dancing, singing and ululation by the jubilant refugees. As the first buses drove out of the departure area at the camp of 45,000, officials released scores of balloons to symbolise the start of a major operation that should see the return home of more than 20,000 Angolan refugees this year.
Zambia is home to an estimated 200,000 Angolan refugees - half the total number of Angolan refugees in the region. The refugees are being cared for in four refugee camps in the west and in urban areas.
The launch of the operation in Zambia - the third country in the region to set up an organized return programme for Angolan refugees - was witnessed by government officials, representatives of donor missions in Zambia, refugees and UNHCR staff, among them the agency's regional co-ordinator for the Angolan situation, Mr. Kalu Kalumiya, and the representative in Zambia, Mr. Ahmed Gurbatalla. Two other return operations to Angola are underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Namibia.
Mr. Mushala said living as a refugee was always painful and noted that it was good to finally see the refugees start returning home to build new lives.
"Zambia has been patient and generous with the refugees. We are now reaping the rewards of our patience and the peace which is prevailing in Angola, " he said.
More than 25,000 Angolan refugees have registered to return home from Meheba alone under the return programme to be carried out over the next two years. Working with the International Organisation for Migration, the convoys from Zambia will head mainly to Cazombo, in Angola's eastern province of Moxico.
Cazombo, along with four other communities (Mbanza Congo in the province of Zaïre; Luau in Moxico; and Menogue and Calundo in Cuando Cubango) meet certain pre-conditions for organised return. All can be reached by road, the danger of landmines is relatively low, and basic services including schools, health clinics and potable water are available.
The Chargés d'Affaires in the Angolan Embassy in Zambia, Mr. Joao Da Costa, described the day as a very emotional one and assured the returnees that Angola was peaceful.
Returnees on Friday's convoy were to overnight at a border reception centre in Kamapanda, more than 200 kms away, before proceeding to Cazombo tomorrow, July 12. In Cazombo the returnees are expected to spend the first few days back in Angola at a reception centre, where they will receive mine awareness training, HIV/AIDs information and medical assistance, where needed. They will also receive a re-integration kit which consists of food rations, a construction kit to assist in building their homes, and basic household supplies.
With the start of repatriation from Zambia, UNHCR now has in place four return routes to Angola. There are two return routes from the D.R. Congo - from the Bas Congo southwards into Mbanza Congo in northern Angola and from Katanga Province to Luau in north-eastern Angola. UNHCR opened up a third route from Namibia into the southern Angola province of Cuando Cubango.
Together with the return from Zambia, nearly 3,000 Angolan refugees have been assisted home from D.R. Congo and Namibia since the start of organized return to Angola nearly three weeks ago. The government of Angola estimates that some 130,000 Angolans have returned home on their own since last year.
"I'm so happy to be going home," said returnee Mika Kalumbo, who had gone back to Angola once before in 1998, but then had to flee again. "This time, I hope we can stay home," she added.