Angolan refugees return to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to build a new life
In the summer of 2022, Terese, Miche, Roger and Nella returned to their home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), after living as refugees for five years in Angola.
In the Lôvua refugee camp, a group of friends gather around a fire with the owners of the place, Miche Mazela Kusa and Terese Kitembe, who are soon to return to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with their two children.
"I fled the conflict, but now peace and security are back, so I'm going home," says Miche, speaking of the ethnic and political conflicts that erupted in the Kasai province in 2017, pushing an estimated 35,000 people to seek refuge in Angola. At first, Miche didn't think that the war would reach Kamako (a town in Kasai where he lived, near the border), but the militias eventually entered his town. Some members of the community were killed and the army itself began to flee. At that point, Miche and his wife knew that they had to leave, so they in turn fled to Angola, leaving everything behind.
Five years later, in August 2022, Miche and Terese are about to return to the DRC as part of a voluntary refugee repatriation operation organized on the Angolan side by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Government of Angola and a number of other partners, with funding from the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (PBF). The United Nations supports these repatriation operations to help Governments face the influx of refugees and migrants, improve border management, and find durable solutions to the challenges they face in this context. Repatriation operations are one such durable solution and, since the voluntary repatriation of Congolese refugees from Angola restarted in July this year, hundreds of Congolese refugees were able to return home with the help of UNHCR and IOM.
"There are still a few weeks left [before we go back home], but I feel like we've been waiting for months," says Terese, whose husband is anxious too: "I even have trouble eating, because I had expected that I’d be back in Congo at this point," he says.
Back home, back to work
Miche and Terese have spent the past five years in Angola in the Lôvua camp. But they have not been idle. Miche was already a farmer in the DRC. "I am passionate about agriculture," he explains. Here in Angola, he continued to work as a farmer with his wife's help to complement the financial assistance that he received from UNHCR and be able to provide for his family.
"It was a good thing to keep working. It was interesting, especially because of the experience I gained," says Miche, who is happy that the training sessions he took over the years in the camp allowed him to learn new farming techniques such as the use of chemical fertilizers.
This passion for farming is also shared by Roger Kilabi Kilabi, a Congolese refugee who is also preparing to return to the DRC. Roger studied agronomy back in his home country and had been working in the agriculture sector. During the five years he was a refugee in Angola, he planted cassava, onions, carrots and sweet potatoes, though not without some difficulty: "It's a poor land and we have to force it to produce," he explains.
Roger provided farming training to other refugees in the camp as part of a People-to-People Development Aid Programme. He himself benefited from programmes implemented by a UNHCR partner which provided him with farming tools and seeds. "I also had people coming at my place asking me for advice, especially about greenhouses and nurseries."
Roger says that when he returns to the DRC, he will look to purchase a piece of land to continue working. "I will carry out a study to find out whether or not the land is good before purchasing it." The other challenge that awaits him is the search for a house. "I will first be living in the family home, then I will figure out where to go," he explains, adding: "I have a big family, and everyone is ready to welcome me."
Back to school
When they arrive in the DRC, returning refugees get help to cover their basic needs: a cash allowance, food and personal hygiene items. UNHCR also supports family reintegration, for example by helping young people enroll in school.
Nella Bambemba may well need such support. "Back in Congo, I was studying in a nursing institute in Kikwit," says the 25-year-old, who is about to return to the city of Kikwit. But Nella ended up dropping out of school halfway through when she fled to Angola with her parents in 2017. "I want to get my diploma and be able to provide for my children," says Nella, a mother of four, including a baby.
Nella's decision to go back to her home country was also prompted by a family tragedy: Her father died in the camp after being bitten by a snake. "Since my father died, as per our tradition, we must pass on the information to the family," she explains.
Nella’s father also happened to be the breadwinner for Nella, her mother, and her siblings in Angola. Now that he is gone, the family is having a hard time. Therefore, once back in the DRC, Nella too will start looking for a job. She would like either to work as a saleswoman or find a job in an NGO to put into practice the training in community support and conflict management that she followed in the camp.
Coping with homesickness
On the day of departure, emotions are overwhelming. All voluntary returnees gather at the Departures Centre in the Lôvua camp and wait to be called to board the bus that will take them to the border. All around them, hundreds of other refugees come to say goodbye. Some nod, others burst into tears. Then, as the bus leaves the camp, groups children and teens start following the bus on the two sides of the road accompanying the travelers as far as they can.
Roger arrived at the Departures Centre wearing a tie and with a big smile on his face. It is an important moment for him, and he is thrilled to be going home.
"Congo is my beautiful country," says Roger. "I feel good, and I am not afraid because this is an organized repatriation process."
As for Nella, she is fully concentrated on the baby she is carrying in her arms. Since her child is only a few months old, she will travel in a separate car under medical supervision instead of joining the other refugees in a bus. This special care is reserved for all vulnerable people: nursing mothers, people who are sick and the elderly. In addition, people with chronic diseases are given the medication they need to continue taking their treatment for three months.
Yet, emotions are strongest in Miche’ and Terese’s family. After all, it was here in Angola that the couple's two children, Narcisse, 19, and Gedeon, 22, spent their teenage years: "I'm anxious and a little nervous," says Gedeon who, during the five years the family lived as refugees, followed the Angolan education curriculum (in Portuguese) and learned English at the camp's language centre. Not to mention the new friends he made after losing his the DRC childhood friends. "Because they all fled," he explained.
Just like Gedeon, Miche and Terese have maintained no ties in the DRC: no family members, no friends. "I don't know exactly where they are, but I want to find my little sister," Terese hopes
During all these years spent in Angola, the couple made friends among other refugees that made their lives sweeter. Terese leaves behind two very close friends of hers, and Miche is forced to part ways with a childhood friend of his with whom he had fled Kasai in 2017 and who decided to stay in Angola. "I'm going to miss the people I had a good time with here."
Despite the challenges, Miche is determined: "I have no hesitation. I'm going home!"
This story was originally written in Portuguese by the UN team in Angola. Edits and English translation by the UN Development Coordination Office (DCO).
For more information on the UN's work in Angola, please visit: Angola.UN.org.
To learn more about the results of our work in this area and beyond, please read the 2022 UNSDG Chair Report on DCO.