In a low-key start to the operation, a small convoy of boats on Saturday took 79 refugees down the Oubangui River from the town of Betou in Republic of the Congo (ROC) to Dongo in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Equateur province. UNHCR and senior officials of the two countries are expected to take part in a formal ceremony later.
A further two convoys carrying almost 620 people are expected to take place today and on Friday, stopping at Dongo, Ikpengbele and Mozombo. UNHCR plans to assist 49,000 refugees return this year from ROC and 32,000 next year. The refugee agency also plans to repatriate Congolese refugees from Central African Republic, but this programme is being developed.
The operation for Republic of Congo will be a major logistical challenge for UNHCR and its partners, with refugees dispersed in remote areas over a wide area.
The refugee returnees on last weekend’s convoy were among an estimated 143,000 civilians who fled to neighbouring countries (123,000 to Republic of Congo and 20,000 to Central African Republic) to escape inter-ethnic clashes sparked by fishing and farming disputes in Equateur in late 2009. Those crossing to the Republic of Congo sought shelter in remote settlements on the banks of the Oubangui.
A further 100,000 sought safety in other parts of Equateur, but most went back to their villages as the situation improved. A few thousand have returned from Republic of Congo, but many come over to check their lands on a regular basis.
UNHCR has been helping the returnees, providing shelter kits and constructing more than 200 homes for the vulnerable. It has also been promoting reconciliation between the Enyele and Munzaya communities, who signed a non-aggression pact early last year.
As part of the reconciliation programme, a UNHCR-funded community radio station went on air last October. It can be heard across the river.