THE atmosphere in the meeting rondavel at Mporokoso's Mwange Refugee Camp was heavy with uncertainty and expectation when a delegation comprising local government officials, diplomats and United Nations agencies representatives.
The over two-hour flight from Lusaka to Mporokoso, which is about 175 kilometers from Kasama, and another over 20 kilometers drive to Mwange was aimed at achieving one objective and that was to urge the huge population of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to go back home.
Before even the dusty plumes that had been caused by the motorcade convoy could settle, the meeting commenced and things got into high gear.
United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative James Lynch was visibly not happy with what was obtaining ahead of the commencement of the 2010 voluntary repatriation of about 7, 000 Congolese refugees to their home country.
"In my country when you help someone they say 'thank you' they do not say 'give me some more'," Lynch said amidst murmurs from the listening refugees.
Lynch said it was disheartening that only 183 out of the over 7, 000 Congolese refugees that had expressed desire to return home this year had signed up to return so far.
Addressing Congolese refugees at Mwange Refugee Camp in Mporokoso, Lynch asked the refugees to explain why they seemed reluctant to return to their home country when about 34, 000 of their compatriots had repatriated from 2007 date without anyone returning back to Zambia.
"I think everybody here has met me on several occasions and you know exactly the things I come talk about. The last time I came to you I explained to you that the Tripartite Agreement that was signed in Kinshasa in 2007 is coming to an end in 2010," Lynch said. "Last year around the same time almost the same delegation was in Kala Camp explaining this and as you know almost 17, 000 refugees returned last year, which brought the total of the repatriation between 2007 and 2009 to about 35, 000."
Lynch said in February 2010, the parties to the Tripartite Commission on the Voluntary Repatriation of Congolese Refugees in Zambia discussed whether there was need to continue the repatriation in 2010 and upon realisation that more wanted to return donors, were approached and asked to provide additional funding to the undertaking.
"Today when I came, 183 only signed up for return between both camps and in fact the April boat convoy was cancelled because we could not fill one boat. We find that, I think with the government of Zambia, donors and the UNHCR, very disheartening. So if all these people who had signed up had gone then we would be in a position to close both camps and that is still our plan. So it will be interesting to hear from you why from January, now we are in April, there has been such a change because every time we have come here we have listened to you," Lynch said.
In a bid to get more refugees to sign up and voluntarily repatriate by the end of the year, Lynch even told them that the food incentive would be upped this time around, especially for the early repatriates.
"I hope this will be an incentive for more people to sign up," said Lynch and he added: "I was waiting for an applause. It is very important for people to think seriously about returning this year because these camps will be closed. As you know as I have told you many times Moba is a beautiful place…you have your right on the lake. You have a lot of economic activities."
Lynch did not get the applause he was expecting from the packed rondavel hut but instead he got an indifferent laughter.
Lynch said the donors' assistance towards the refugee activities in Zambia would not go on indefinitely.
"They would rather see assistance going into Congo that will allow you to re-integrate when you get back home," said Lynch.
United States (US) Embassy in Zambia charge de' affairs Michael Koplovsky said he was also disappointed that only one-third of the refugees had signed up to return when about three-quarters of them had expressed desire to go back initially.
"Of course repatriation is voluntary but refugee status is never permanent," Koplovsky said. "I have heard that only less than 200 of you have signed to return."
He urged the refugees to return to DRC because the camps were earmarked for closure at the end of this year.
"The American government has no intention to provide support in these camps. We want to invest into your successful re-integration into your home country. I hope you will work with UNHCR and its partners to make that happen," said Koplovsky.
However, the refugees had something to cheer about when European Union (EU) Delegation leader Dr Derek Fee took the stage and greeted them in their dialect, Swahili.
But Dr Fee was very categorical in urging the refugees to return to their country.
"This is the fourth time I have come to speak to Congolese refugees here in Zambia. Like my other colleagues, I am sure you are very grateful for the hospitality that Zambia accorded you," Dr Fee said. "We are all very understanding about the issues why you came here. We know the reasons you came to Zambia but the events that brought you here have changed. We know that the repatriation is voluntary but like anything it must come to an end at one point."
Dr Fee urged the Congolese refugees to go to their country as soon as possible so that they could benefit from the incentives.
"Last year we had a successful repatriation. If it is bad this year, it will give a bad impression to the donors and they will stop, saying no more funding for the refugees," Dr Fee said. "This year is the year when you will think about going back because there is no guarantee for assistance for another year."
DRC Ambassador to Zambia Floridert Kaseba Makonko was next in the line and the noisy welcome from the refugees spoke volumes of their feelings.
"Since I came to Zambia this is the first time here in Mwange that I am appearing before the Congolese community in Zambia," Ambassador Makonko said. "In Lusaka, Livingstone and in Ndola they asked to meet me but I said first I want to meet the Congolese who have been suffering and here I am in Mwange. I won't say much… I would like to stay here for a while. We came by air. I will go back by road. Even those in Kasama I will meet them. After all the visitors have gone we will be able to discuss in detail."
Ambassador Makonko thanked the donors for the good job they had done in ensuring that DRC was now a stable country.
"I have been told that you are to return to Moba and Lubumbashi. We will do that so that you can return to a place that is calm. All these issues that you have raised, they (donors) have listened."
Zambia's home affairs permanent secretary Ndiyoyi Mutiti said the absence of peace in the DRC was no longer a source of concern, hence the need for refugees from that country to return.
"The government of the Republic of Zambia intends to close Mwange and Kala camps this year," Mutiti said. "I would like to make it clear that there is no legal provision in this country as at now to make a refugee a Zambian citizen."
Mutiti urged the refugees to be mindful that their refugee status was temporary based on the reasons that made them flee their country in the first place and she told them not to delay in making a decision to return.
"Once the repatriation process is over and the refugee status ceases, then the persons will no longer continue enjoying the refugee protection in Zambia," she said.
Mutiti said once the cessation clause had been signed the immigration laws would take effect on those Congolese refugees that would choose to remain in Zambia.
"If those were followed most you will not qualify to remain in Zambia," Mutiti said. "Once you fail to take advantage of this opportunity there will be more complications later."
Mutiti conceded that there seemed to be reluctance among the refugees to return.
After all was said, spokesperson for the refugees, Muzungu Mukoyi, gave an explanation behind the reluctance to return.
"If you can allow us as Mwange refugees to bring to your attention the difficulties, which we are facing," Mukoyi said. "We would like to inform you that there has been a lot of insecurity in the country (DRC), which has been coming up from time to time, especially since 1964."
Mukoyi cited other wars and insecurity situations in DRC but he ended his concern on the 1998 war, which he said took long and saw a lot of people leaving the DRC.
"Because of these events that have been happening, that is what is still in our mind and when there has been a war there will be another war," Mukoyi said. "We would like to request the international community, Zambian government and UNHCR to understand our plea so that we can continue to have continuous peace in our lives."
Another refugee, Kongolo Kitenge said for 18 years he had been in exile and he thought he had finally a home to stay in peace.
"But today I am being chased. I do not have any relatives my only relatives are my children," he said. "When we came here we thought there was safety but we have found that we have to return. I have no peace in the country of return. I do not even know where I will go."
The urgings and lamentations continued with Mutiti saying that the delegation had heard the refugees' concerns but she also asked them to take into consideration what she had said.
Come end of this year, only fate would prove whose objectives, between the two parties, would carry the day but it is clear that the wounding up of the winding repatriation of Congolese to DRC would not be a mean achievement.
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