KINSHASA, 3 Jan 2005 (IRIN) - The first of thousands of displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)'s Equateur province returned home as part of a pilot project being undertaken jointly by the government and the UN.
On Friday, 375 internally displaced persons (IDPs) left Equateur's provincial capital, Mbandaka for their homes in and around the town of Basankusu, 240 km northeast, Social Affairs Minister Ingele Ifoto told IRIN on Monday.
The IDPs travelled home by way of the Congo and Lulonga rivers on a barge provided by the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUC.
Almost three million people displaced by five years of war have still not returned to their homes in various parts of the DRC, despite a December 2002 peace agreement between the government and all rebel groups and the creation, in June 2003, of a government of national unity.
"Although the war ended over a year ago, many displaced people are still traumatized by atrocities they experienced and refuse to go back," Ingele added.
A pilot programme in Mbandaka, as well as in Oicha and Eringiti in the eastern province of North Kivu, and Kasenga in the southern province of Katanga, is set to return 70,000 displaced people.
Around 15,000 displaced people in Mbandaka have so far signed up for the programme, Ingele said. "We are assessing their needs," he added.
The IDPs will be given kits to help them resettle.
"The next group of IDPs will leave Mbandaka on the 20th of January to other parts of the country such as Kisangani in Orientale Province and Shabunda in the province of South Kivu," the minister said.
About 32,000 displaced people are registered in Mbandaka but the minister said there are many more. "Some have not even been counted since the war ended because they are still hiding in the bush," he said.
"They are so destitute they are often naked," he said. "They do not dare come out."
The many displaced people in Equateur were adding to the general humanitarian catastrophe in the province, the minister said. Many children there do not go to school; health services are mostly unavailable or too expensive for most people to afford.