Humanitarian access in Impfondo, in the northern Likouala region of the Republic of Congo (ROC), has improved following the reinforcement of security, say officials.
Impfondo is hosting about 120,000 refugees from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who fled fighting between the Enyele and Munzaya communities over land and fishing rights in the Dongo area of Equateur Province in late 2009.
"There has been an improvement since late March. Security has been restored and humanitarian [officials] including UN agencies can take aid to the people in this region," said Daniel Roger Tam, head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Impfondo.
Insecurity on parts of the Ubangi River, which forms a natural border between the two Congos, had left some refugee sites beyond the reach of aid agencies.
Most of the refugees, in some 92 sites along the river, have remained reluctant to return home despite repeated government appeals.
UNHCR has registered 31,000 in a process hampered by the insecurity.
The Betou District (in Likouala) sub-prefect, Col. Jean Dominique Engamba, said: "The security situation in the southern road changed following Congolese army reinforcements." Betou is hosting 54,000 refugees.
"We have taken measures to improve security for the refugees and local populations along the Ubangi," said Engamba.
Saturnin Abomé, secretary-general of Mombenzelé village, 100km south of Impfondo, said security should be reinforced following the surrender of the Enyele insurgent leader, 25-year-old Odjani Mangbama.
Following his surrender, Mangbama was taken to Impfondo before being extradited to Brazzaville where he is in police custody.
Security has also been reinforced in Ngondola village, south of Mombenzélé, where refugees have in the past been abducted by insurgents crossing the Ubangi.
"We recorded four abductions up to the end of March. [Now] we have a detachment of 25 marines who protect us. We sleep with [one eye open]," Jean-Didier Sengoli, the Ngondola village committee president, told IRIN.
Logistical challenges, however, remain due to low water levels in the river; long rains forecast for June are expected to improve water levels.
While the DRC army says it has restored peace and stability in Equateur, leading many to return home, some refugees in Congo see the military's very presence there as a deterrent to going home.
“The soldiers are monitoring everybody’s movements. We are afraid to live with them; it is for this reason that we do not want to return," said Dieudonné Engomagué, 52, who is teaching in a school in Ngodola.
|I don't see how we will go back to a region where we lost everything: houses, schools, fields...|
The DRC army has often been accused of perpetrating abuses against the citizens it is meant to protect. It also suspects that many of the insurgents are mingling with the refugees.
The DRC government in mid-May sent a delegation from Gemena, Equateur, to Likouala to sensitize its citizens on measures taken for their return home.
"These officials promised to send the boats by the end of June for our repatriation," said Javier Inguema in Betou. "We cannot leave like that. The repatriation must be decided by UNHCR in agreement with our host country [the ROC]."
Charlotte Boléké added: "I don’t see how we will go back to a region where we lost everything: houses, schools, fields… no one has reassured us that we will [even] have tarpaulin to rebuild our shelters. In that case, I am not returning."
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is preparing to launch a food distribution exercise, to cover all the refugee sites, WFP Impfondo representative, Bruno Bindoumou, said.