Angola has completed what is being called the largest ever repatriation of refugees in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 400,000 people who fled decades of war in Angola have returned home during the past four years. Correspondent Scott Bobb has details from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.
Senior Angolan and U.N. officials concluded the repatriation program this past week at a ceremony in Luanda.
The spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Angola, Manuel Cristovao Simao, called it a historic occasion.
"This is a very important moment for Angola," he said. "It's a moment of joy, a moment of happiness, a festive moment."
More than a million people were killed during the nearly three decades of civil war that erupted at independence and only ended in 2002.
Simao said more than 400,000 refugees during the past four years returned to their villages and neighborhoods. And millions of others who were displaced within the country have also gone home.
"These persons are helping to rebuild the country, to rebuild their villages, their localities and they are giving their contribution to the reconstruction of the country," said Simao.
One hundred forty thousand refugees were flown back from neighboring countries such as Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia and South Africa. Others received support as they made their own way home.
In some cases villages that were turned into ghost towns by the years of civil war have returned to life. Yet the returnees face many challenges.
Simao says a major challenge for the younger ones is the language barrier.
"Many of these young returnees left the country at a very young age while others were born outside the country. So they don't speak Portuguese," he said.
Simao says a local bank is funding a reintegration program that includes Portuguese lessons for children. In addition, the Angolan government has rehabilitated 135 clinics, schools and houses for health workers and teachers as part of the reintegration effort.
The returnees must also be registered in preparations for elections next year.
Officials say 190,000 refugees have asked to stay in their host countries because of jobs or family reasons. Simao says nevertheless the door remains open for their repatriation.
"The government has guaranteed that these persons remain Angolan citizens and may return to their country of origin whenever they wish to do so," he said.
U.N. officials say the focus now is on sustaining the return program. They are holding a series of meetings with officials from Angola and neighboring countries on how best to guarantee the successful reintegration of the refugees into their societies.