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Namibian refugees in Botswana to return home

Following a fact-finding tour by the UNHRC and five refugee representatives, a group of 700 Namibian refugees currently living in Botswana are determined to head back home this month.
Rodrick Mukumbira

Uncertainty awaits 700 Namibian refugees in Botswana who have indicated a willingness to be voluntarily repatriated this month following a visit to volatile Caprivi by five of their representatives.

The 700 belong to the 2,300 Namibian refugees in Dukwe, northern Botswana, in exile following the failed secessionist bid in 1999 of the Caprivi region, a barren strip of land in north-eastern Namibia.

A repatriation commission that includes members of the government of Botswana and Namibia and the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) facilitated the visit to Caprivi by the five on a fact-finding mission to assess the situation at home. Following this visit, August 12 had been set aside as the date when the repatriation would begin.

While the agreement to repatriate the refugees guarantees that no returnee may face any legal proceedings, persecution, punishment, or discrimination for having left the country, it does not guarantee that returning refugees will not face prosecution in Namibia for any crimes that they might have committed before their departure from the country.

This has sparked fears that the Namibian government could subject the group to the same reception that 50 voluntary returnees experienced, when they returned home from Dukwe in 1999.

The Namibian government is so anxious to get hold of Mishake Muyongo, the leader of the failed bid now exile in Denmark, that the 50, who returned home in November 1999, were treated with suspicion and endured police questioning, harassment, and even physical assaults in the hands of the armed force.

Over 128 Caprivans are currently languishing in prison facing high treason charges after armed gangs, loyal to Muyongo, took over a radio station in Katima Mulilo, a small town in Caprivi, and proclaimed that the strip had been seceded from Namibia. Among those in prison are 15 of the 1999 returnees.

"The incidents of August 1999 really shock Namibia and it will do anything to prevent such further incidents," says Amon Shumba, a political science lecturer at the University of Botswana.

He says the Namibian government must first show its commitment that the 700 would not be harassed when they return. But this may be impossible, considering the relationship the ruling South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO)'s leader Sam Nujoma has established with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who is bent on silencing all dissenting voices.

Since 1999, the Namibian government has maintained a heavy army presence and a dawn-to-dusk curfew in the Caprivi district. Officially it says it is trying to contain the Angolan civil war that has split over into the country. But to the residents of this area, it is not UNITA that is giving them a hard time but Namibian security forces.

Over the past three years, the Namibian government has justified its presence in the Caprivi region, saying the Caprivans have harboured guerrillas of the late Jonah Savimbi's UNITA in the country and that the activities of its security forces are meant to protect the country's sovereignty. The Namibian government also says Muyongo was working in cohort with UNITA when he launched his secessionist bid, allegations Muyongo has denied from his safe haven in Copenhagen.

In the face of this, the government has also mobilised a special force to deal with the Caprivi district, which is similar to when Mugabe employed a special force against the Ndebele of southern Zimbabwe in the early years of Zimbabwe's independence.

Muyongo is a former SWAPO parliamentarian who fell out with the ruling party after addressing a rally near Katima-Mulilo in 1998 calling for the separation of Caprivi from the rest of Namibia. Analysts say his activities have made the Namibian government restless so that it is now bent on silencing any other voice that might want to differ.

However, the Caprivi district has lacked government attention, probably because of its distance from the capital Windhoek, since independence from South Africa in 1990. Its capital, Katima-Mulilo, is 1,200 kilometres from the country's capital.

No major development has occurred in Katima Mulilo other than the Trans Kalahari highways built in 2000 following an agreement between Botswana, Zambia, and Namibia. Residents of Caprivi have watched while the government developed other areas, especially Oshakati, the hometown of Nujoma in the country's northwestern areas.

AFRICANEWS travelled to Dukwe in early July when the five refugee representatives - Fidelis Mutanikelwa Muchali, Ivan Victor Kabunga, Williams Mayundu, Daan Melen Boetie, and Kimson Ndando Sikundja - concluded a four-day tour of their home areas. They told AFRICANEWS that they had gathered information that had given them hope that it was now safe to return.

That information has prompted 695 others to want to return home, although uncertainty awaits them.

But there are potential risks that may await the volunteer returnees when they come back to Namibia, Kabunga said during their tour at Makanga village, some 70 km west of Katima Mulilo.

Makanga, which is Kabunga's home village where his closest remaining relatives - his father, grandmother, aunts, and uncles - stay, is also a village where several of the 128 Caprivi high treason accused come from.

It is also in this area that exiled separatist leader Muyongo allegedly made a public speech in early September 1998, announcing a plan to secede the Caprivi region from Namibia, and where some of the Caprivi Liberation Army members who carried out armed attacks at Katima Mulilo on August 2,1999 gathered for training in October 1998, and again assembled before the surprise attacks.

Muchali, a 25-year-old former insurance agent, has been away from home for three years and seven months. He has gone through major life events - getting married to a fellow refugee from Caprivi, the birth of a daughter now eight months old, and the death of his mother back home - all while exiled from the land of his birth.

He told AFRICANEWS that when arrived in Makanga, he was received with a rapturous welcome, exuberant greetings, many smiles, and a few tears of joy.

He says more than 100 village residents crowded together for an impromptu meeting with Kabunga, his fellow prospective returnees, and officials from the UNHCR and the two governments who had accompanied them on these "go and see" visits to their former homes.

Once it had been explained that the meeting's purpose was for Muchali and his colleagues to hear about the situation back before they and the other refugees at Dukwe decide whether they will return home now, the community opened its heart further.

"The villagers told us that they want us to return, but then there must be better assurances of our safety than the broken promises that the previous returnees had been given," he told AFRICANEWS.

UNHCR field officer Vesna Vukovic, who is based in Rundu 500 kilometres west of Katima-Mulilo, says the tripartite agreement under which the voluntary repatriation is to take place has a provision stating that the Namibian government has to inform the UNHCR as soon as any returnee is arrested, detained, or becomes involved in legal proceedings.

"The community itself must play an active role and also report such incidents if they take place," she says.

However, the Caprivans feel they were let down by UNHCR. When the first batch of refugees returned in 1999, the refugee agency failed to turn up, prompting gross human rights violations.

Vukovic says the refugee agency will now make follow-up visits to Makanga. However, it does not appear that the UNHCR can do much more.

"I feel free to come back home," Muchali says, explaining that his father has warned him about the dangers involved in going back home. But he is adamant about his plans and that nothing can stop him from showing off his Sudanese bride and daughter. His father has told him that the Namibian government will not forget about the August 1999 secessionist bid and that he just has to remain in Botswana and get used to staying in a foreign country.

"I am a refugee because of misfortune," said 23-year-old Boetie. "I was not around when the attack took place. I only left the country because I heard the security forces were looking for me and that my life was threatened. Now I am ready to go back to my country."

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