Zambia’s last DRC refugees fear return home

Ten years after fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Muzungu Makoi says he is still haunted by memories of massacres and refuses to leave his home in a refugee camp in Zambia.

Four of his five children were born here, and the 51-year-old earns about $2 a day selling sweets and razor blades from a ramshackle stall amid the plastic tenting and brick thatched homes.

Nearly 34 000 Congolese refugees have already returned home to what passes for peace in the vast central African nation. About 5 100 remain at the Mwange refugee camp, where they have built homes, schools and churches.

Zambia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency want to close the Mwange camp, about 100 kilometres from the border in a remote corner of northeastern Zambia, by the end of the year.

But most of those who remain are like Makoi — traumatised by the memory of war, fearful of rejection by the families they left behind, and worried how they will start a new life in a country most fled in a decade ago.

“The war of guns is over but there is still war in Congo because our relatives will not accept us,” Makoi said.

“And again people should know that the war memories are still fresh in our minds. They should just allow us to stay in Zambia because we have become part of the Zambian community,” Makoi told Agence-France Presse.

Millions killed, displaced
All of his possessions were destroyed during the war that erupted in 1998, sucking in six other countries with an array of rebel groups. An estimated 5,4-million people died in the conflict and the resulting humanitarian crisis.

Millions were displaced from their homes, with many seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

But after elections in 2006, pressure has grown for refugees to return home.

Zambia wants to close the camps, and says anyone who wants to stay would have to meet stringent immigration laws.

“We are closing these camps, and they should just go back because there is peace in Congo,” said Ndiyoi Mutiti, permanent secretary in the home affairs ministry.

“If they want to stay they have to meet the immigration laws and no one will be able to meet the laws.”

Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, has little to offer the refugees as an incentive to move. The UNHCR will provide food for three months after their return home, and donors are financing their transport.

Some of the refugees concerns would be shared by any family contemplating a move.

Beatrice Mutiti, a mother of two, said one of her daughters was in her last year of high school, at one of the schools run by Zambian teachers for refugee children. She fears her daughter would not be able to graduate in December if they left now.

Kongolo Kitenge came to Zambia more than a decade ago as a newlywed. Now he has five children who know no other life, while he owns a truck and has a steady income transporting goods around northern Zambia.

“When I think of going back home, fear comes into me,” he said. “When I came here I thought I had found home and peace, but now you want to chase me.”

“I am sure that if I arrive in Congo, I will die or I will go mad,” Kitenge said through an interpreter. — AFP

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