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No respite yet for refugees

A Human Rights Watch report notes that one of the critical challenges facing the country in its transition to peace will be the successful return and integration of millions of internally displaced persons, refugees in neighbouring countries, and former combatants displaced during the conflict.
Zachary Ochieng

After three decades, hundreds of thousands of deaths and mass displacement of the civilian population, the death in February 2002 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led to the signing of a ceasefire on April 4 of the same year and put an end to Angola s bloody conflict

The report titled Struggling through peace and released in August 2003 notes that a year after the signing of the peace accord, more than two million internally displaced persons and approximately 25 per cent of refugees living abroad have already returned to their places of origin. However, the majority of those displaced by the war remain in exile, in transit or temporary resettlement sites.

Tragically, the return of internally displaced persons often without any formal assistance has led to hundreds of deaths and injuries, due primarily to the widespread presence of landmines in Angola.

According to the report, many Angolan refugees, mainly those living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia have returned to Angola spontaneously with their own limited resources. Some returnees have suffered extortion while crossing borders and checkpoints. Others have drowned while trying to cross swollen rivers.

The report adds that at border areas, women and girls have been victims of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. Sadly, the basic conditions to receive these returnees are still not in place. Authorities have dedicated their limited resources to the assistance of former combatants first and, to a lesser extent, internally displaced persons.

The integration of former combatants, estimates of which vary widely, presents another serious challenge. To further complicate matters, ex-combatants have been classified as either internally displaced persons or returning refugees to guarantee their access to humanitarian assistance.

This report is based on an investigation by Human Rights Watch, conducted in March and April 2003. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed over fifty internally displaced persons, refugees, and former combatants in the transit centers and the camps of Bengo, Bengo II and Kituma in the province of Uíge and Cazombo in the province of Moxico.

The researchers conducted twenty-one interviews with concerned U.N. agencies, NGOs and other organizations, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the U.N. Children s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP), Oxfam-GB, GOAL, African Humanitarian Aid (AHA), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-Spain, MSF-Belgium and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).

The report comes against a background of nearly three decades of civil war in Angola. During this period, approximately one million people were killed, 4.1 million displaced and 400,000 driven to the neighboring countries of Zambia, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo and Namibia.

During the civil war, both the government and UNITA committed widespread abuses against the civilian population. Violations included physical and sexual assaults, rape, mutilations, forced conscription, abduction of women and girls, looting, and extra-judicial executions , says the report.

It adds: In areas under their control, UNITA troops regularly forced civilians to leave their homes and flee from their areas of origin. They were often forbidden to carry their belongings and many travelled distances of several hundred miles to reach safe havens. Because they did not carry any clothes, food or medicine, many perished along the way or narrowly survived malnutrition, landmine injuries and disease .

According to the report, as of mid-April 2003, out of a total of 4.1 million internally displaced persons in Angola, more than 1.8 million returned to their places of origin in several Angolan provinces. Despite the significant returns, as of March 2003, some 283,068 internally displaced persons were still living in some ninety camps and transit centers. Another 315,981 were in temporary locations.

Human Rights Watch has documented a number of serious problems currently facing internally displaced Angolans as they return to their homes areas inside Angola.

First, some displaced Angolans have been unable to make voluntary decisions about where they wish to return inside Angola. This violates international standards. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Angola is a party, recognizes everyone s freedom to choose his residence, which incorporates the right to return to one s home area, but also to refuse to return there if conditions are not in place to allow for safe return.

Some have been physically coerced, while others have been pressured to leave certain areas or not to return to others, such as the capital, Luanda. Second, priority status given to former combatants has resulted in rushed returns for some internally displaced persons.

Third, internally displaced women heads of household have not been afforded adequate protection. Fourth, most internally displaced persons have not been granted identity documents. Fifth, humanitarian assistance has been insufficient for some displaced persons after they have returned to their home areas.

In addition, Angola s own national standards, which incorporate the Guiding Principles, are contravened when Angolans are not allowed to decide for themselves when and where to return. The Norms for the Resettlement of Internally Displaced Populations and their implementing regulations require that return of displaced persons should be voluntary and consensual, and should include the participation of displaced populations in the resettlement and return processes.

Human Rights Watch found that in direct contravention of these standards, local authorities have forced internally displaced Angolans to return to their home areas by violence or threat of violence.

Other cases of involuntary return involved more subtle push factors. In some cases, the government threatened to suspend assistance to internally displaced persons in the transit centers or displaced persons camps they had been residing in for many years.

Human Rights Watch s research in Negage, Uíge and Cazombo documented a recurring preference on the part of governmental authorities to assist the return of former combatants to their home areas, rather than civilian displaced persons. In many ways this is an understandable preference.

The report observes that former combatants can present serious security risks for a government if they are not properly and efficiently demobilized and re-integrated into civilian life. A concentration of unsatisfied former combatants could lead to banditry and insecurity in a particular region.

.According to the report, many internally displaced Angolans interviewed by Human Rights Watch came under pressure to leave the transit centers because they were told to make room for demobilized soldiers. Local authorities told them that soldiers would be entering the center as a means to push the civilian displaced persons out. Some only managed to remain behind when humanitarian groups intervened on their behalf with the local authorities.

The report notes that women who prefer not to return home have come into direct conflict with the Angolan government s preference for moving internally displaced persons out of transit centers to make room for the quartering of demobilized soldiers. As a result, female heads of household who refuse to evacuate the transit camps are currently sharing the same facilities with former combatants and military personnel.

This current practice in Angola of housing a particularly vulnerable group (female heads of household and their children) with former combatants, many of whom are known for committing violent acts against women and children in the past (combatants) raises serious human rights concerns.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases where female heads of household have refused to evacuate the transit centers, causing them to be accommodated in the same facilities as former combatants, incidents of rape and other physical violence, as well as threats of violence, have been reported.

Rosita D., a single mother living in Bengo II, a transit center in Negage [that was also housing demobilized soldiers] expressed her fears about remaining alone in a camp where about twenty families of former combatants were also living.

The military drink a lot and they disrespect women and girls. They come and talk to the girls. Once there was even a shootout. It was in the beginning of 2002. I always tell my daughters to be careful. I fear for them

The report also notes that many of the internally displaced Angolans interviewed by Human Rights Watch did not have identity documents that would allow them to establish their names, familial status, age, nationality, place of origin, or other identifying features.

The pervasive lack of identity documents violates Principle 20of the Guiding Principles that stresses the importance of issuing new documentation or replacing documentation for internally displaced persons so that they may exercise their right to recognition as persons before the law.

The report says that Angola faces serious challenges in ensuring that all displaced persons receive adequate food, water, shelter, and other humanitarian assistance, such as seeds and tools, to facilitate their reintegration. On multiple occasions, the Ministry of Social Assistance and Reintegration has stressed that the displaced should terminate their dependency on external assistance and return home.

Although many Angolans genuinely wanted to return to their places of origin and improve the conditions in their home environment, unrealistic deadlines and the evacuation of civilian displaced persons in order to make room for former combatants meant that many people went home before adequate food, water, seeds, tools, and other humanitarian necessities were in place.

The report recommends that the government of Angola should take steps to ensure that the Norms for the Resettlement of Internally Displaced Populations are fully implemented, including, in particular, respect for the right of voluntary return to areas of origin.

It also recommends immediate investigation of and disciplinary action against military and police officers where credible allegations for responsibility in abuses against refugees and internally displaced exist, and urges the establishment of prosecutors offices in areas where displaced or returnees are settling and

To the donor countries, the report recommends provision of technical and financial assistance to the Angolan government in creating demobilization and rehabilitation programs that are suited to women and children. It also recommends continued funding to humanitarian agencies assisting the return and resettlement process in Angola giving special attention to women and children s needs and also assisting communities that welcome returning internally displaced persons and refugees.

To the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the report recommends increased presence of protection staff at key border crossing points in order to prevent violence and extortion against returning refugees.

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