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By Pedro Makuta Nkondo
Makela do Zombo, Angola - Tens of thousands of Angolans who fled to neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the civil war face hardship as they try to go home at their own initiative but find that few places can accommodate them upon their return.
"These refugees often travel between 100 and 200 kilometres and cross the Nzadi river (in northern Angola) on their own. We cannot help them cross the river because of the damage caused to the bridge during the war," said priest Manuel Casimir Joao, a community leader in a town near the DRC border.
He said trucks belonging to the UNHCR usually pick the refugees up about halfway from the border to the impoverished town of Makela do Zombo in the northern Uige province which is about 40 kilometres from the DRC border.
The UNHCR has been working with other humanitarian organisations such as Caritas, as well as the Angolan government, to bring about half a million refugees home since the 27-year civil war ended in April 2002.
The Makela do Zombo municipality said the town had accommodated more than 23 000 Angolan refugees who returned from the DRC between 2002 and 2004.
"Makela do Zombo today has 345 000 residents," said a municipal officer who did not want to be named.
The population in this town grows continuously but it does not have running water or electricity. A power generator provides some electricity to houses but a lack of fuel limits usage to three hours a day.
Joao said it was impossible to organise that the refugees return to their original homes in Angola because of the bad conditions of the roads.
"It is absolutely necessary that the government supports us and renovate these roads so that we can start to organise repatriation," he said.
The refugees encounter difficulties when they cross the border from the DRC and have to deal with both administrative bungling and corrupt DRC government officials.
Their identity papers are often confiscated by civil servants who refuse to give the documents back unless they are paid, something most of the refugees cannot afford.
"Many of the refugees arrive here without their identity documents, because it was confiscated on the DRC border," Joao said.
Then an investigation needs to be done to determine their identities, a further delay in the repatriation process.
The DRC interior ministry estimates that there are 269 812 Angolan refugees in the country, in a total of 403 348 from accross the continent.
The Angolan government has confirmed that about 220 000 people, out of the estimated 500 000 who fled during the civil war to neighbouring countries, have returned to Angola either with the assistance of the UNHCR or by their own means.