Refugees from the palm-fringed spice islands of Zanzibar stranded in the war-torn Somali capital Mogadishu prepared to fly home on Friday, more than a decade after fleeing political violence.
Thirty-eight refugees lined up to board a UN’s flight out of Mogadishu – often dubbed the most dangerous city in the world – on the final step of an epic journey back home to Tanzania.
“The returning families have been living in Mogadishu for over 10 years and have now decided that it is time for them to return,” said Andreas Needham, spokesman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Somalia.
“Their bags are loaded, they are saying their farewells to Somalia, and we will be off soon to Zanzibar,” he added, speaking from Mogadishu airport.
Zanzibar's white-sand beaches are famed worldwide as a tourist destination, while Mogadishu has earned a grim reputation for the gunmen who cruise the ruined city in heavily armed pickup trucks.
More than 2 000 opposition supporters from the semi-autonomous Tanzanian archipelago fled violence after elections in 2 000 to Kenya, where they were placed in Dadaab in the arid north, the world's largest refugee camp.
Some later returned home on their own, but others travelled elsewhere, with a few hundred ending up in Somalia, eking out an impoverished living as barbers, beggars, fishermen, or as labourers.
Most set up home in a crumbling and bullet-scarred building, a government ministry abandoned during the two decades of war in the city, but were relocated after officials reclaimed the site.
“Twelve of the original 23 families who approached UNHCR are being voluntarily repatriated,” the UNHCR added in a statement, noting that some of the men who remain have married Somali women.
“The remainder indicated that they would prefer to wait and see how the situation in Tanzania unfolds before making a final decision,” it added.
Zanzibar and Mogadishu share historical links: sea-faring Zanzibari sultans once ruled the Somali capital in the 19th century.
But modern similarities are few. Tourism is the main foreign currency earner for Zanzibar, listed as a world heritage site by the UN cultural organisation, UNESCO.
Somalia, meanwhile, has been embroiled in war ever since the toppling of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, with battles between rival warlords and militia groups devastating the once elegant capital.
The Zanzibaris' journey was the opposite of almost a million Somalis who have fled to other countries in the region – the Horn of Africa nation generates the third highest number of refugees in the world after Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the UNHCR.
In addition, some 1.36 million people are displaced inside Somalia, fleeing conflict and the ongoing impact of a devastating drought last year in which tens of thousands died.
The families, who are due to be met by government officials in Zanzibar, are expected to travel on Saturday to their home isle of Pemba, where the UN will provide a package of support to help restart their lives.
Zanzibari leaders said the situation had changed since the refugees fled, with a new president elected and rival political parties now forming a coalition. – Sapa-AFP