Congolese refugees in no hurry to return

As Zambia prepares to repatriate the last of the Angolan refugees on its soil by the end of 2005, the fate of thousands of Congolese refugees, sheltered in camps throughout the country, remains unclear.

Zambia hosts an estimated 55,000 Congolese refugees, most of whom fled the country at the height of civil strife in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2000. In Kala refugee camp, some 45 km from the DRC-Zambia border, sentiment about returning home ranges between confidence and uncertainty.

Despite landmark multiparty elections scheduled for June 2005 in the DRC, on a recent visit to the camp IRIN learnt that refugees were unconvinced the poll would usher in permanent peace in the troubled central African country.

"There are still people who arrive at the camp from time to time, which means it is unsafe to return - even if there are elections, there isn't any guarantee that there will be peace. I do want to go home, but only when it is certain that we will not be attacked again," 27-year-old Kilnembi Kyabanya told IRIN.

Kilnembi, his wife and two children, are among an estimated 26,000 Congolese seeking refugee at the camp. Most fled the volatile Katanga province in eastern DRC, which saw heavy fighting between government troops and rebels in 2000.

Although the mineral-rich province has since experienced relative stability, last year hundreds of Congolese flooded into Zambia to escape reported clashes between Mayi-Mayi rebels and the national army in Dikulushi.

United Nations agencies, NGOs and Zambian officials admit that ongoing insecurity in parts of the country continues to jeopardise any attempt at kick-starting formal repatriation.

According to one aid worker, a major factor driving the uncertainty among refugees and the humanitarian community was the lack of credible information about the current security situation on the ground.

"We do not want to repatriate refugees just to get them home: much needs to be done to ensure that they return to their areas of origin with dignity and, of course, to areas where there are basic services in place. But we do need more information about safety in the DRC," said UN refugee agency (UNHCR) field officer Napaporn Bunklaya.

She pointed out that although talks with Zambian and DRC officials were promising, it would be some time before a tripartite voluntary repatriation agreement was reached.

In the meantime, the 7,500 Congolese families occupying Kala refugee camp have sought to bring some semblance of normality to their daily lives.

With the assistance of UNHCR, the Zambian government, World Vision, and HODI, a local Zambian NGO, Kala's infrastructure includes six primary schools, a secondary school, churches, a clinic, a market, sports fields and meeting places.

Despite their precarious situation, said Veneste Mwika, a refugee who acts as the camp's education administrator, concerted efforts had been made to ensure that children regularly attended school, where the Congolese curriculum is taught. According to Mwika, two refugee children have gone on to university in Zambia.

"It is important to let these children know that there is a future for them, even if it seems uncertain now. So far, our schooling system has produced some very good results," he said.

Food security remains a concern. Under the World Food Programmes's (WFP) general food distribution, each refugee receives a cereal - mostly maize - with pulses, vegetable oil and salt. However, between November and December last year refugees were on half rations, as WFP ran out of cash to buy locally produced maize.

The UN food agency resumed full food rations in January but is facing stiff resistance from the refugee community, who complain that the sorghum substitute is inadequate and inedible.

WFP has said that the lack of cash donations forced the agency to consider alternative cereals.

"If we could afford to buy maize then we would have, but we cannot and therefore are trying to formulate ways to ensure that the health of the refugee population remains stable," a WFP official told IRIN.

In an effort to get refugees to become less reliant on WFP rations and improve household food security, HODI has supported a series of agricultural projects.

Refugees receive training in crop selection and learn how to maximum their yields. They are also provided with seeds for the vegetables best suited to growing conditions in the camp. A scheme to cultivate the land has been set up, in which fifteen pairs of oxen are being procured and rotated.

"The goal is to ensure that the community is able to supplement their WFP rations and look after themselves. At times there are food shortages in the camp and this can lead to health problems, so it is important to have an adequate food supply," HODI project coordinator Charity Gondwe explained.

An additional 2,316 ha of agricultural land, provided to the refugees by a local chief, was demarcated for the 2004/05 farming season. Access to land has become a sensitive issue among refugees, who say that land allocation thus far has been insufficient and continues to hamper their efforts integrate fully into the local economy.

"With the little we have been given we have proven that we are serious about cultivation and looking after ourselves; we have also provided the nearby Zambia villagers with our produce. We have been here for a long time now, and maybe we will be here for many years; so we should be given more, so we are not a burden on the Zambian government," Mwika said.