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Refugees to return to Equateur Province

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KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.

KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.

KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.

KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.

KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.

KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.

KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.

KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.

KINSHASA, 7 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Although conflicts continue to smoulder in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), most refugees could soon return to their homes in Equateur Province, in the northwest of the country.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it will assist the return of 64,000 Congolese in coming months.

"Many of these refugees have been expressing a desire to return, and we think the time is now ripe," Aida Haile Mariam, who manages UNHCR's programmes in the DRC, told IRIN in March.

Almost 60,000 former inhabitants of Equateur fled to the Republic of Congo (ROC) six years ago, although some went to the Central African Republic (CAR) - where repatriation has already begun.

"We have brought almost 2,000 refugees back from the CAR since October 2004," Aida said.

However, many of the refugees in the CAR who had registered for repatriation have since changed their minds, a UNHCR external relations officer, Jens Hesemann, told IRIN on Friday.

This, he said, was because they had been under the erroneous impression that they would receive a cash grant if they went home.

Around 4,600 registered refugees remain in the CAR, either in the capital Bangui, or in a UNHCR camp in Molange, 138 km farther north.

UNHCR hopes to have repatriated most of the refugees in the CAR, along with 59,000 others in ROC, by 2007. The agency said the first of a group of 18,000 are due to return to Equateur at the end of April.

Why they left, and how to return

According to UNHRC, most refugees fled Equateur in 1999, when fighting erupted between the rebel Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), headed by Jean-Pierre Bemba, and the army of the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila. Various foreign armies also became involved.

Since then, the area has mostly been controlled by former MLC forces, despite a peace agreement reached in 2003 to integrate former rebel combatants into a new national army.

The refugees are mostly camped along the 1,000 km-long, Oubangi River, which forms the border between Equateur in the DRC, and the CAR (to the north) and the ROC (to the west).

Thousands have been living in makeshift villages around the town of Betou in northern ROC, near where the three countries share the border.

Although many of the refugees have been camping directly across the river from their homes, there are no bridges across the surging waterway, so UNHCR has ordered 25 specially designed vessels to carry the refugees and their belongings.

After starting in Betou, the boats will head south along the river to pick up other refugees along the banks and ferry them across.

However, the Oubangi River is riddled with sandbanks, which make it difficult for boats to navigate safely.

In addition, the agency has designated four trucks to move refugees living inland. As the operation gears up, it is planning to buy 12 more.

UNHCR has estimated the cost of the entire undertaking in 2005 to be around US $9.3 million.

Life back at home

"Many of the refugees will come back to find their homes burned down," Mamadou Ndao, a UNHCR field officer based in Equateur, told IRIN in February.

UNHCR has set up small field offices in the towns of Zongo, Lubenge and Gemena in the north of Equateur. It has also begun to set up new offices farther south, in the towns of Dongo and Mbandaka.

"Our job is to do what we can to create a conducive environment for the returnees," Ndao, who was based in the Gemena office, said.

The agency has started building homes for those returning to Gemena; in other areas, it was also rehabilitating schools, health centres and sources of drinking water.

Equateur, which is more than 13 times larger than the DRC's former colonial ruler Belgium, is one of the DRC's poorest and least developed provinces.

Ndao said there was a buffer zone between the towns of Imesse and Bubura, along the banks of the Oubangui River, to which refugees could not return at the beginning of the year. However, he added, "We hope that by the time we get that far south, the fighting will have stopped."

UNHCR's original plan had been to complete repatriation to one area before moving south to the next.

"It would have been more cost effective, but when we started last month in CAR it became clear that that would not be possible," Gabriel Joseph Bagui, the UNHCR programme administrator in Bangui, told IRIN.

Commenting on the change of heart by refugees in the CAR, Bagui said. "They have to make the decision to return by themselves - [they] will get a second chance maybe some time around June." s

However, the repatriation process will eventually come to an end. "After that the refugees will have to find ways to look after themselves," Bagui said.


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