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Aid Groups Encourage Congo Refugees to Return Home

With violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo subsiding, the U.N. World Food Program will once again begin airlifting food to the region. Aid workers hope the aid will encourage many thousands living in refugee camps to return to their villages. Jordan Davis files this report from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar, with reporting by Eddy Issango in the Katanga province.

Humanitarian groups say hundreds of thousands of people in the DRC's southeastern Katanga province have fled their villages since fighting broke out between the Mai-Mai militia and government troops last year.

Many villagers say militiamen burned down their houses, and now they are living in refugee camps where they say life is not easy.

One refugee near the town of Pweto says they lack cooking utensils, food to eat, and housing. And, he says, the children are not going to school.

The conflict that drove them from their homes appears to be quieting down. An official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Guy Marie Mouakasala, says it is time to encourage families to go back to their villages.

"The security situation has improved now that the Mai-Mai are no longer battling government forces," he said. "Plus, families do not want to stay in the camps."

Humanitarian groups are now placing aid in the abandoned villages, hoping to encourage families to return. The World Food Program will airlift over 1,400 tons of food to several provinces in the eastern DRC, including Katanga.

While many refugees want to return to their villages, some in the camps say they feel uneasy about returning to live with the Mai-Mai, even if some have started disarming.

"The militiamen may not be active, but they are still hanging around," the villager said. "It scares us, but given the life we are leading here in the camps, it is better to go home."

One concern refugees have is how they will get there. Many of the roads and railways have been destroyed in the recent fighting.

Even though peace deals effectively ended Congo's war several years ago, rogue militia groups have continued to fight each other in many parts of the east.