War-weary refugees in Malawi want to go home

Neno, Malawi―Hundreds of people who fled to Malawi from fighting in Mozambique are finally poised to go home, desperate to reach their untended farms now that the guns have fallen silent.

Patricia Ekeson, 32, was among the thousands who fled to the safety of Malawi four years ago after Renamo rebels and government troops renewed a bloody cycle of violence. 

She escaped with her husband and three of her daughters after her village in the coal-rich Moatize region was engulfed by the conflict, killing several close relatives.

But with the rain expected within months, the family is desperate to return to their farm. 

“We have to go back home and start living independent lives again,” said Ekeson, whose youngest daughter was born at the Luwani refugee camp in southern Malawi.

They are not alone.

Hundreds of people at Luwani have already registered to go back to their ancestral villages across the border in Tete province and the camp is bustling with preparations.

Trucks are piled high with reed mats, wooden stools, clothing and whatever scant possessions the refugees have to return home with. 

UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials have faced “mounting pressure” since last year from the refugees wanting to go home, according to the organization’s representative in Malawi, Monique Ekoko. But the process of signing a formal repatriation agreement between the neighboring nations had delayed the move.

Mozambique has been scarred by repeated convulsions of violence, sending people fleeing across the country’s border.

Renamo fought a brutal 16-year civil war against the Marxist-inspired Frelimo government that devastated the economy and left one million people dead.

The group, which operates both as a political force and as an armed militant group, has participated in elections since the first multi-party democratic vote in October 1994. 

The 2013 unrest raised fears of a return to the bloody civil war, but Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama declared a truce in 2016.

Despite his unexpected death in May, peace talks with the government have continued.

And in a key tests of the detente, the country is due to hold municipal elections on October 10.

The hopeful mood has galvanized those who were forced to flee the fighting. 

While UNHCR says more than than 12,000 Mozambicans crossed the border into Malawi from 2015 to 2016, many have already returned home.

The Luwani camp was initially set up during the civil war and was reopened to house refugees of the more recent fighting in its single-room brick shelters. 

Some 3,000 people remain at the camp, according to the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, but Luwani officials say more than 500 individuals have been processed to leave.

Ekoko said those in the camps are pushing to go back because they want to plant their crops before the rainy season begins in November. If they do not make it in time, they will have to endure another year in the camp.

“The timing is quite crucial for them,” she said, adding that “spontaneous returns have been very common”.

One of those readying to leave is 26-six-year-old Luis Pasengese, who was born at the camp after his parents fled from Mozambique’s civil war.

He is eager to see the end of his second stint in Luwani. 

“The war has stopped and people are living peacefully so we have no excuse to be living here as refugees,” he told AFP, making final preparations for his departure on Tuesday.

Pasengese was forced to leave Mozambique in 2015, with his wife, two children and ailing mother, when his house was torched during the latest violence. 

His third child, a girl, was born at the camp six months ago.

With signs of stability returning to his homeland he can only hope that the country can consign its conflicts to history―and that his family can bid a final farewell to Luwani.   

“We just have to go back and pick up the pieces and see where this road leads us,” he said. 

Topics: Malawi , Mozambique , Patricia Ekeson , Luwani , Afonso Dhlakama
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