BRAZZAVILLE/KINSHASA, 13 May 2011 (IRIN) - Eighteen months after fleeing across the riverine border separating the two Congos, some 120,000 refugees seem to have little prospect of returning home soon.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had scheduled an organized repatriation from the northern Likouala region Republic of Congo to the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) Equateur Province in late April, but this was indefinitely postponed because of logistical and financial issues.
"Some areas [in Equateur] are only accessible via the Ubangi river; others can only be reached by footpath," UNHCR said in a recent statement.
The exodus from DRC took place in late 2009 following conflicts over natural resources [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=87961 ] , such as fish ponds, between the Enyele and Munyaza communities.
About 1,000 of the refugees are thought to have returned back across the Ubangi river of their own accord, according to the UNHCR.
Those still in Congo, who live along a long stretch of the river, do eventually want to return home but only "on the condition that peace is restored to the zone of the conflict", said Celine Schmitt, head of UNHCR's External Relations.
The refugees have also expressed concern about returning to an area with a heavy presence of DRC government troops and about the lack of official reconciliation efforts.
Some aid agencies working in Equateur's Dongo area, the epicentre of the 2009 violence, say security fears were unfounded. According to a 2010 report by the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, ACTED, Dongo is considered the easiest and most "secure" of the areas in which it works. The report said the risk of conflict re-igniting was not totally excluded, but that there have been no signs of conflict until now. The organization Search for Common Ground and UNHCR in Equateur Province said the Enyele and Munyaza communities signed a non-aggression pact on 12 March 2011, indicating they were willing to co-exist peacefully.
It is unclear whether calm will prevail when the refugees finally return to Equateur. "People are ready to be reconciled. We must wait for the refugees to return so that the different leaders can meet each other. We can't really talk about true reconciliation when the people concerned are not here," Rigobert Moupundo, president of the National Commission for Refugees in the DRC, told IRIN.
One of the villages in Equateur, Makanza, has yet to recover from the effects of the 2009 conflict as well as from one in March 2010. Although 80 percent of Makanza's population has returned, the conflict "destroyed the socio-economic fabric of the population, living mainly off fishing and agriculture. Fishermen lost their nets and pirogues, livestock was pillaged and schools destroyed. In Makanza, people have turned toward making coal and selling firewood to survive," Charlotte Billoir, director of ACTED, told IRIN. Some fields in Makanza are still occupied by DRC army (FARDC) officials, she added.
The presence of FARDC remains a cause for concern across Equateur. "There is no longer any security problem in the region, except harassment related to the presence of the FARDC, but this is the same across DRC in general," said Muriel Cornelis, technical assistant for ECHO in Equateur Province. The national army has often been accused of involvement in human rights abuses in the country.
Conditions in Likouala
Lack of infrastructure, a major problem in the whole of DRC's South-Ubangui region even before the conflict began, may also complicate efforts to rehabilitate the thousands of refugees in Congo-Brazzaville. Infrastructure needs remain high, despite agency efforts to reconstruct shelters, water sources and schools destroyed during the hostilities.
"Even with all the advances made in the Equateur region, the level of access to water and health centres will be inferior to those the refugees find today in Likouala," Cornelis told IRIN.
But in Likouala, the 120,000 refugees, of whom 82 percent are women and children, still live in precarious conditions. They have settled in 104 sites along the river. Numerous cases of domestic and sexual violence have been reported by refugee women, according to UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP). Humanitarian workers say some donors have grown weary of assisting the vulnerable populations.
In February, the UNHCR launched an appeal for US$ 31.5 million to continue bringing in aid for the refugees. "We have been able to collect $17 million and now we need to raise a further $14.5 million," Anouk Desgroseilliers, public information officer for UNHCR, told IRIN.
She said the new funds would help to provide shelter, health and sanitation, but they were insufficient. "Aid will continue to suffer from this lack of funds. We are already in the month of April and still waiting to receive funds. Hope is what is helping us to go on," said Desgroseilliers.
WFP at Impfondo, Likouala's administrative centre, confirmed in March that the organization only had sufficient food stocks to assist the refugees until May. Some refugees have been working in the fields of host communities in return for a small income, but access to potable water and healthcare remain limited. Malaria, respiratory track infections, intestinal parasites, and sexually transmitted infections are among the main pathologies among the refugee population.
According to the UNHCR, in addition to 120,000 refugees in the Republic of Congo, 20,000 people have fled to the Central African Republic. Of the 60,000 internally displaced in the interior of the northeast of the DRC, 30 000 have since returned home.