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UN Finishes Repatriation of Congo Refugees from CAR

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says it has wrapped up its repatriation operation of Congolese refugees from the Central African Republic with the return of the last 131 refugees this weekend. The UNHCR says the voluntary program has assisted nearly 5,000 refugees to return to the homes they fled years ago. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has suffered decades of instability and four years of civil war between 1998 and 2002. During this time, an estimated 4 million people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands fled into exile to escape the violence.

The U.N. refugee agency's repatriation operation from the Central African Republic (CAR) began three years ago. A spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says the operation was repeatedly interrupted for security concerns and bad weather conditions.

He says it also was suspended because of Congo's presidential elections in the summer of 2006 and the post-election violence that erupted in the capital Kinshasa.

He says most of the Congolese refugees who fled to the Central African Republic during the late 1990's originate from Equateur province in northwestern Congo. And, that is where they are returning.

"Of course, the situation there is calm and quiet," he said. "So, the people do not face, for example, the potential violence and the situation is different than in North Kivu where at the moment, there is an upsurge of fighting between government troops, the renegade troops and the rebels. So, for obvious reasons and instability the people are not going back there."

Mahecic says the UNHCR gives each family a package of basic provisions to help them get resettled upon their return. He says this includes plastic sheeting for shelter, household items and a three-month supply of food.

He says basic services are lacking in many of the regions of the Congo. Infrastructure is poor. He says life is difficult for the returnees.

"In Equateur province for example, when they return to the villages, they lack most of the basic services," he explained. "There are very few schools. There are very few health centers. In some places, there are even no roads. So, this is part of the hardship they face. But, obviously the will to go home is much stronger than the difficulties they may face upon return."

The Central African Republic is the second of nine countries neighboring the DRC, which have wrapped up the repatriation of Congolese refugees, following Sudan earlier in the year.

The UNHCR reports since the start of the Congolese repatriation in 2004, about 135,000 refugees have returned home from surrounding countries. But, it notes, more than 300,000 Congolese refugees remain in Tanzania, Zambia and Rwanda.