|June 6, 2003
Preparations for repatriation of refugees
In Angolas neighbouring countries, the preparations for the repatriation of Angolan refugees have started. The UNHCR has been registering Angolan refugees in Zambia, Namibia and the DR Congo as part of the repatriation process which is to start this month.
From Zambia the first group of 400 Angolan refugees will arrive in Angola in June 12, as part of the voluntary organised repatriation process. According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the returned refugees will spend the first days in sheltering centres where they will receive training about mines danger awareness, information on HIV-AIDS and get some necessary medical assistance.
Before they leave the centres, the returned refugees will be given a food allowance, a construction instruments kit, blankets, soap and kitchen utensils. Afterwards, they will be distributed to the five areas of the country that have been prepared for this effect, namely, in Mbanza Congo (northern Zaire province), Cazombo and Luau (eastern Moxico province) plus Menongue and Kuando (southern Kuando-Kubango province).
The process also involves the distribution of seeds and agricultural instruments in these communities to help them become self-reliant in terms of food. According to the UNHCR, these communities have the appropriate pre-conditions for this operation and the danger of mines is considered to be reduced, moreover, basic services such as education, health and water distribution have been secured.
The process of repatriating refugees living in Botswana is to move forward with the signing of an agreement. Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos began a visit to Botswana on Tuesday, June 3, where "the relevant Botswanan and Angolan ministers will sign a repatriation agreement with UNHCR [the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees]", said UNHCR Botswana Representative Benny Otim. Officially, Otim said, about 850 Angolans classified as refugees are living in Botswana. "But there is indeed a larger number of Angolans in Botswana - some have been here for more than 20 years and a large number of them have already been naturalised [as citizens], while others are in the process of being naturalised. They will not want to go home," Otim noted.
Once the repatriation agreement was signed, representatives of UNHCR, Angola and Botswana would form a commission to look at the logistics of taking people back to Angola. Otim said ensuring that people were returned in "safety and dignity" was of paramount concern. "As you know, some of these areas [in Angola] are heavily mined. We will have to focus on ensuring that when they (the refugees) get back they will not be hurt. The moment conditions on the ground are acceptable we will take them back into Angola." Otim noted that there were 450,000 refugees throughout the region, with the biggest concentration in Zambia. "So for us, returning the 800 or so refugees here is not going to be problematic".
A team of refugees and UN officials are in southern Angola to assess conditions as part of the final phase in the planned repatriation of over 20 000 people who fled to Namibia. Among the refugees expected to be repatriated back to Angola from Namibia are at least 15 000 from the Osire Refugee Camp, about 230 km north-east of Windhoek, 400 refugees and some 300 livestock at the Kassava Refugee Camp in the Kavango Region.
A recent spot survey by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Osire indicated an overwhelming majority, in excess of 95 per cent, expressing their willingness to return to their motherland. A team of eight refugees, seven of them from Osire and one from Kassava Refugee Camp, are visiting a number of centres in the Cuando-Cubango Province where the refugees are expected to be repatriated when the exercise, which is expected to start before the end of June, takes off.
In a separate development, a mine-awareness programme has been launched by the Angola Red Cross in two of the country's worst affected provinces, Bié and Benguela. The aim of the project, launched by the Angola Red Cross with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is to reduce casualties caused by mines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO).
"The second of two workshops organised under the programme was held in Bié province last week and 40 Red Cross volunteers who took part have now returned to their communities, where they will help the local population find solutions to the problems posed by mines/UXO. The workshop was also attended by ICRC staff based in Namibia and by representatives of the Mine Action Centre in Zambia, who will start up awareness-raising activities for Angolan refugees in those two countries," said an ICRC statement.
Around 3,000 people have been killed or injured by mines/UXO in Angola since 1998, the organisation said. Angola's 27-year long civil war was ended by a ceasefire agreement a year ago. "Despite ongoing clearance efforts, these dangerous devices will nevertheless continue to cause problems for years to come. Some 440,000 Angolan refugees living in neighbouring Zambia, Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and large numbers of internally displaced people, are now returning home, many to areas that have not yet been cleared of mines/UXO," the ICRC warned.
An ICRC/Red Cross survey conducted in affected communities at the beginning of the year showed that although the population had some knowledge of how to reduce mine/UXO risks, a lot of work remained to be done. "It also made clear that the devices, in addition to claiming lives or limbs, prevent people from going about essential daily activities such as farming, gathering wood and carrying water," the ICRC said. "Since the first workshop held in March, mine-awareness volunteers have visited some 50 affected communities in Benguela province to collect information from the villagers about the location of mines/UXO. Subsequently, the Angola Red Cross and the demining organisation operating in the area were able to remove the devices," the organisation added. (Angola Press Agency, Luanda / IRIN)