Coming Home: Return and Reintegration in Angola

Published: 16/Mar/2005
Source: Human Rights Watch

When the Angolan army and UNITA rebel forces signed the Luena Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”) on April 4, 2002, they brought an end to one of the most protracted and brutal wars of the twentieth century, a Cold War proxy battle that outlived the Cold War by more than a decade. The February 2002 death of Jonas Savimbi, the leader of UNITA (Unio Nacional para a Independncia Total de Angola, or National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), led to the collapse of UNITA’s military forces and the end of thirty years of armed struggle against the governing party, the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertao de Angola, MPLA).Yet the Luena MOU, the culmination of the Lusaka peace process started in 1994, marked not so much an end but a beginning: the beginning of the difficult process of rebuilding the country’s shattered physical and social infrastructure, and reintegrating the millions of people who fled their homes during the war and the thousands of former combatants into a peaceful society. Human Rights Watch analyzed the Lusaka peace process in Angola Unravels: The Rise and Fall of the Lusaka Peace Process (1999).

This report, which focuses primarily on the challenges confronting Angolans when they return home, updates Human Rights Watch’s prior examination of the return and reintegration process, Struggling through Peace: Return and Resettlement in Angola (2003). At the time of that report’s publication in August 2003, more than two million of an estimated 3.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) had returned to their areas of origin; the rest remained displaced, often in temporary camps or resettlement sites.Approximately 130,000 refugees living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia and Namibia had also returned, with 53,000 more remaining in these countries.The majority of these returns were “spontaneous”-refugees returned by their own means and not under an organized repatriation program.The government of Angola, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the host countries of the DRC and Zambia signed the tripartite agreements regulating the repatriation process only in March 2003, and no reception centers to assist the returning refugees had been established. In addition, the government had just officially closed the quartering areas established under the military annex to the Luena MOU for the demobilization of former UNITA combatants and their relatives and dependents (Annex I, “Document relating to the quartering of the UNITA Military Forces”).

Since the publication of Struggling through Peace, nearly all IDPs and former combatants and their families have returned to their areas of origin or have decided to remain in their host communities. The pace of assisted refugee repatriation has also quickened with the establishment of major reception centers in the provinces of Moxico and Huambo, and smaller centers in Uge, Zaire, Cunene, Cuando Cubango and Lunda Norte.By the end of 2004, 281,000 refugees had repatriated to Angola, including 94,000 in UNHCR’s Voluntary Repatriation Programme. UNHCR expects to complete the voluntary repatriation programme in 2005 with the return of some 53,000 refugees remaining in camps and settlements in DRC, Zambia and Namibia.

With most of the postwar population movement now complete, Angola is at a crossroads.Decisions made today will determine whether the huge population of recently displaced and exiled citizens and former combatants can fully reintegrate into a peacetime society and help build a stable and prosperous country.

Most families have returned to locations with minimal social services, such as health care and education, and few economic opportunities.Few former combatants have received the vocational assistance mandated by the Luena MOU.All returnees face challenges in the agricultural sector-although access to land is widespread, much of that land has lain fallow for years and is difficult to cultivate productively.Female headed-households and women living alone face special problems in accessing and cultivating land.In some parts of the country, particularly Moxico, landmines are so pervasive that people are literally settling on top of minefields.Landmines, destroyed bridges and the devastated road system have left many communities of return almost completely isolated, sometimes accessible only by air, if at all.

Many returnees also lack the basic rights of citizenship, including the right to work, the right to public education and the right to vote in the elections tentatively planned for 2006, because they cannot obtain the requisite identity documents.Police and military officials harass returnees without identity cards, even jailing individuals until they pay a bribe.Some Angolan refugees returning from the DRC without sufficient proof of Angolan citizenship are accused of being illegal Congolese migrants and diamond smugglers and are thus subjected to violence and sexual abuse.UNITA activists have also been attacked in communities where they attempted to open offices or hold political meetings.

In addition to the transition from war to peace, Angola is facing another difficult transition-from the recipient of emergency and humanitarian aid to longer-term development assistance from the international community.This gap creates serious problems for returnees attempting to rebuild their lives.For example, food aid and the distribution of seeds and tools may be cut off before they are able to cultivate their land, or before roads are built to enable them to reach markets. Development projects, however, will be stalled until donors and the international financial institutions are satisfied with the government’s level of financial accountability and transparency.Human Rights Watch analyzed the Angolan government’s gross mismanagement of its massive oil revenues in a prior report, Some Transparency, No Accountability: The Use of Oil Revenue in Angola and Its Impact on Human Rights (2004).

The transitional period has been marked by a decreased international protection monitoring presence. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the lead UN coordinating agency in Angola (now known as OCHA/TCU, or Transitional Coordinating Unit), has drastically scaled down its field presence and monitoring activities.Decreased funding has prompted UNHCR to eliminate staff positions for protection officers and reduce its monitoring of refugee returns, a key component of UNHCR’s mandate. At the same time, international NGOs are facing decreased funding and few national NGOs or government agencies have the financial or human resources to take over monitoring and assistance roles.

The government of Angola must meet its obligations under international and domestic law to assist and protect returnees, and the international community must maintain an adequate presence in Angola to ensure that the human rights of returnees and former combatants are respected. The returnee population-indeed, all Angolans-has endured years of instability, violence and deprivation, and those returnees interviewed by Human Rights Watch are cautiously optimistic about the future.Their patience should not be taken for granted-they rightly expect to improve their lives, and unless the government fulfills its commitment to the socioeconomic reintegration of all returnees and former combatants, their patience could turn into frustration, resentment and eventually conflict.

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Themes: ID Documents and Passports, Nationality and Refugees
Regions: Angola
Year: 2005