On the long road home

Camp on Angolan border gives refugees
short respite from arduous journey
Sunday, October 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:03 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

LUAU, Angola —The last of the seven trucks lines up for an hour in front of Luau’s transit camp as the sun sets over Angola’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. About 50 refugees are squashed together on the truck’s rear, among them Benson Soneka and six of his family members.

When the back is finally opened, the Zambian refugees grab water cups, soap-size packets of dry food and plastic mats from the aid workers and stumble into the night, searching for a grass hut — their shelter for the coming days.

Soneka is on his way to Luena, a day’s drive away, where he wants to join with the family he has never met. The 27-year-old doesn’t know what his future holds, but he smiles when he mentions the one thing he expects: “Peace!”

Angola, in southwest Africa, has been at peace since 2002, after a bloody, 27-year civil war ended with the death of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi and a cease-fire between Unita fighters and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola-led government forces.

Fighting and a power struggle between the major parties erupted in the wake of the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Military support from countries including Russia, Cuba, China, South Africa and the United States led to one of Africa’s longest wars, which cost thousands of lives and displaced millions.

Many of the displaced — like the twins Justin and Webby Sapassa — now return to a home they barely remember in search of a dream and a future.

The twins were born in 1974 on their family’s flight east. Both have Zambian diplomas in music and computer science. They returned because refugees are badly paid in Zambia, and they say they didn’t want to waste their knowledge.

“We have come with our knowledge of music, clothes, shoes, school certificates and vehicle,” Justin says. “I’m expecting paradise here.”

They admit they are more acquainted with Lozi customs than Angolan politics and geography. They have seen online pictures of Angola’s capitol, Luanda, but have a similar image of their destination, Luena — Moxico’s provincial capital — a city with no traffic lights and minimal access to the Internet and other media.

“Today we’re poor, but if you work like a slave, you’ll be a king tomorrow,” Webby says. He is concerned about their security, but his brother is confident about the future.

“Adaptation will take time,” Justin says.

It’s 7 p.m., and the smell of manioc floats through the humid air. Most refugees sit quietly in front of their grass huts, waiting for volunteers to prepare a meal of lentils, peas and maize. Some, like the Sonekas, have reunited with friends and family. No one celebrates. Most refugees have lived in camps for years, and Luau is just another stop on their long road home. Many will be separated again the next day when half the camp is cleared for another arrival from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The camp accommodates up to 1,200 refugees at a time, who may receive food and stay there for up to 15 days before continuing toward their destination. Before they leave Luau, the refugees receive reception cards and register with about a half-dozen nonprofit organizations and Angola’s Ministry of Social Assistance and Reintegration. They pick up their luggage from the camp’s central square and receive several nonfood items: three soap pieces each, one blanket for two people, a plastic sheet, a mosquito net, a construction kit, a kitchen set and two jerrycans for every five refugees. Aid workers educate them on human rights, land mines, HIV and hygiene.

Last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 133,000 Angolans returned home, most within the five months before the rainy season beginning in November makes roads inaccessible. The refugees come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Namibia and Congo. These voluntary repatriation movements are the second largest in the world after those in Afghanistan.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees works hard to repatriate more than 200,000 Angolans left abroad before the organization’s planned departure in 2006, the year of possible national elections. But most of the more than 200 aid organizations in Angola are only about 50 percent funded. Foreign donations are dwindling in the wake of crises in the Middle East and Sudan. This year, the Angolan government refused genetically modified food from the World Food Programme’s largest donor, the United States, leading to a cut in food rations for refugees.

Food is the source of most complaints in Luau’s transit camp, aside from rampant theft, diarrhea and boredom. Refugees from Zambia, who are often better-educated and used to a higher standard of living than Democratic Republic of Congo returnees, especially criticize the World Food Programme for dishing up an oily mix of maize meal and manioc for several days.

So far, international aid organizations have shouldered most of the repatriation movement. But few dare criticize Angola’s government, which recently postponed major social reforms to next year and is said to have pocketed more than $4 billion in oil revenue over the past years.

Field officer Acasio Jaffar Juliao calls his relationship with the government “good.” U.N. personnel are holding workshops with politicians and police to minimize harassments of returnees and facilitate the 2006 handover.

“We’re supporting government; we’re not leading — although de facto government is behind,” says Juliao. “They sometimes refuse to help, which is normal at this stage because of their lower information and education level and us being more visible. The handover will be a big problem though if (the Ministry of Social Assistance and Reintegration) doesn’t improve quality and increase its number of staff.”

World Food Programme officials say they were brushed aside when they asked for assistance to pave the town’s airstrip, which becomes inaccessible during the rainy season.

“They said it was our responsibility,” says Judith Bolanzi, the food program’s Moxico program director and former Luau base manager.

She adds, “When it rains, people cry” because approaching planes carrying food must return to Luena without landing on Luau’s muddy runway.

But there are also many signs of improvement. A year ago, the transit camp’s wooden and grass shelters were made of plastic sheets.

Luau’s market offered little more than fruit. Now vendors sell Coca-Cola and other necessities and luxury items. People are moving into areas suspected to be mine-laden, illustrating Luau’s growth from about 3,000 residents in 2002 to more than 45,000.

The government is fixing bridges over the Cassai to link Luau to Lunda Sul province, northwest of Luau, allowing more trade and travel.

“A year ago that was unthinkable. Progress is picking up. Let’s see if they can keep the momentum,” Juliao says.

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