DR Congo + 1 more

South Kivu sees high tide of Congolese returnees

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UVIRA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, July 22 (UNHCR) - Despite being perhaps days away from giving birth to her eighth child, heavily-pregnant Congolese refugee Faibe Mbeleci has travelled two days on the back of a bicycle and a further two days crammed into a broken-down jalopy to return to her own country.

Now, to her great frustration, trying to board a UNHCR truck, she's been told she can't risk still two more days on a flat-bed truck over rocky, rutted dirt trails to complete the final leg of her dramatic journey to her home village.

Such is the lure of home for Congolese refugees like 40-year-old Mbeleci that they brave any hardships to trek from refugee camps in western Tanzania to their home villages in the long-time war zone of South Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

"It's better to have difficulties in my home than in a country which I don't know," Mbeleci says simply, trying to join six of her children who are already on board the truck, along with the family's meagre possessions.

Despite the fact that the UN refugee agency does not yet encourage refugees to come back to eastern DRC, and does not help them leave camps in their countries of asylum, more than 10,000 refugees - out of the 153,000 in Tanzania - are streaming back to South Kivu in eastern DRC.

Last week, the day after the end of the school year in refugee camps, UNHCR saw a dramatic increase in the number of Congolese refugees returning on their own. Whereas before the number coming back to South Kivu each month had not exceeded 1,100 - and in some months was as few as 368 - last week in just two days, more than 200 refugees landed on one beach alone in Uvira, one of the larger towns in the region. Baraka, further south, has seen even more boat arrivals.

"They have really come home to stay, because they are coming in whole families and not just one person at a time," observed Andre Mikugo, who runs the Acobad transit centre on the beach in Uvira where the refugees spend the night before continuing to their home village.

Unlike Mbeleci, who came by road, most refugees buy perilous passage on overloaded, rickety open wooden boats for US$10 per person - a huge sum of money for them. The journey from Tanzania across Lake Tanganyika to beaches and ports on the Congolese side, such as Uvira and Baraka, takes 15 hours, done at night to avoid Tanzanian authorities. Although UNHCR is not helping them leave, once they are in DRC the agency is providing trucks to drop them off in their home villages, where they are ecstatically received by friends and relatives.

Returning refugees say they waited for their children to finish the school year in the camps in Tanzania and now they want to get home and register their children for schools in DRC. They also say that now, during the dry season, is a good time to rebuild their homes, most of which were destroyed in fighting in their home areas since 1996. Another factor is that they want to register to vote in upcoming national elections as part of the transition to full democracy in DRC.

"The return of so many in recent days in such difficult circumstances is both an expression of faith in the nascent peace in a long-unstable region, and also a result of unfortunate cuts in assistance in the camps in Tanzania," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told journalists in Geneva on Friday.

The last leg of Mbeleci's return to her home village was postponed last week. UNHCR staff took her to hospital instead, along with two other women in advanced stages of pregnancy who had hoped to board the trucks. The 213 returnees who did get on the five trucks were greeted by singing, dancing, shouts of "hallelujah" and fervent hugs by startled friends and relatives along the route who had no warning they were about to meet loved ones they last saw perhaps nine years ago.

Unlike some countries where residents are reluctant to receive returnees, in South Kivu the reception was ecstatic.

"We are happy they are coming home," a grinning elderly woman exclaimed at one stop as returnees clambered down from the trucks. A young man wearing a shiny silver sequined cap cycled over to UNHCR workers specially to tell them: "You are doing good things."

Mbeleci's dramatic journey back to her homeland is eloquent testimony to the passion of most refugees in Africa to return to the countries they were forced to flee.

A refugee since the 1996 war in eastern DRC, Mbeleci found protection in Nyaragusu camp near Kigoma in western Tanzania. Her husband, she says, couldn't take life in exile, and went out of his mind. He ceased to even recognize her or their seven children, and went to live with a brother in the camp.

Desperate for food for herself and her children, she took up with a married man who provided something to eat, but left her pregnant. When she wanted to come back home, he refused to leave his unsuspecting wife and children.

Mbeleci tells her story in unemotional tones, and brushes off any suggestion she is a particularly strong woman. "What can I do?" she asks with a resigned laugh. "I can't kill myself. I have to live on this earth. What can I do?"

So, despite being nine months pregnant, she scraped together what little money she could - many refugees sell their camp ration cards to finance the trip home - and she hired a cyclist to pedal her and six of her children, aged four to 17, to Burundi. Each bicycle cost 8,000 TZ shillings (US$7); she had to pay to feed the bike riders as well.

In a real-life Sophie's Choice, however, she had to leave her 14-year-old daughter behind with another refugee family because she didn't have the bicycle fare for everyone. Now she broods that her daughter will have the same misfortune she has had: "I am worried. That family has a number of boys and she risks also getting pregnant."

After a two-day bike ride, on the border between Tanzania and Burundi, Mbeleci's troubles multiplied. A Tanzanian policeman, she says, stole the last.