KINSHASA, 8 May 2007 (IRIN) - The first group of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who fled to neighbouring Zambia to escape the civil war in the 1990s arrived back home last week under a voluntary repatriation organised by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The 416 people travelled by boat across Lake Tanganyika, disembarking at the town of Kalemie in the southeastern province of Katanga, according to Jens Hesemann, spokesman for the UNHCR. Those who could not go home immediately were taken to a transit point to await transport to their villages.
Zambia hosts an estimated 61,000 refugees from the DRC, of whom about 40,000 live in camps.
Refugees started fleeing the DRC in 1996 when Rwanda and Ugandan-backed Congolese forces, led by Laurent Kabila, succeeded in toppling President Mobutu Sese Seko the following year.
Kabila then fell from grace with his erstwhile allies, who backed rival rebel groups that tried to oust him. This started a second round of conflicts.
Fighting increased in ferocity, extending to seven African countries, and threatening to plunge the region into what has been dubbed 'Africa's world war'. Kabila was shot dead on 16 January 2001 by one of his palace guards and his son, Joseph, took power. However, the fighting continued.
Although all foreign forces left the DRC following the Pretoria and Lusaka peace accords of July and September 2002, fighting erupts occasionally in the east.