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UN to help Congolese refugees head home across difficult terrain

UN to help Congolese refugees head home across difficult terrain

The United Nations is set to help a first group of refugees living in the Republic of Congo (RoC) cross some of the world’s most rugged terrain to get back to their homes in north-western Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Starting tomorrow, around 100 of an estimated 58,000 refugees who fled to Betu, Congo from fighting in the DRC some six years ago will be taken up the Oubangui River in locally built dugouts to a transit centre in Libenge. Roads in the heavily forested region are little more than rough tracks, sudden torrential downpours are common and it can take up to 10 hours to travel only 100 kilometres.

After spending the night at the transit centre, the refugees will be given food, supplies, shelter construction tools and mosquito nets before beginning the next leg of the journey by truck – water levels are still too low for larger boats – across dense rainforest for their areas of origin in Equateur province in north-western DRC. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the final stage will often be on foot.

“This is probably going to be one of the most logistically challenging operations that UNHCR has ever undertaken to return home refugees,” spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a briefing today in Geneva, adding that Equateur, which has been relatively stable for nearly two years, is the only province in the DRC where the agency is currently facilitating refugee returns.

“Many refugees have expressed their wish to return home,” Ms. Pagonis said. Some 8,000 refugees have already signed up to repatriate and UNHCR said it hopes to help as many as 24,000 refugees in Congo voluntarily return home by the end of this year. The operation is scheduled to last through 2007.