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Angolan Refugees Waiting to Go Home

June 20, 2001

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MEHEBA, Zambia (AP) _ Children swing lazily on a loop of vine thrown over a tree. An old farmer waves heartily to visitors. A young man talks dreamily of going away to college. Meheba could be an idyllic village in rural Zambia.

But Meheba is a settlement for Angolan refugees. Those children are war orphans, the farmer was once a respected doctor and Shadrick Kapaso’s college plans involve a dangerous journey through the bush back to his country, where he hopes to find a government scholarship.

``Dying from war, it’s better than dying from doing nothing,″ said Kapaso, 26.

As the United Nations prepared to commemorate the first global World Refugee Day Wednesday _ a month shy of the 50th anniversary of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees _ 11.7 million people around the world remain trapped in a soul-wrenching state of quasi-homelessness, barred from their countries by war and tolerated only as guests in a foreign land.

Throughout Africa, 3.5 million people are classified as refugees, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Guinea hosts more than half a million refugees, many from Liberia and Sierra Leone. Tanzania holds more than 480,000 refugees, mainly from Congo and Burundi.

Nestled between the war in Congo and the continuing civil war in Angola, Zambia has had one of the more persistent refugee problems on the continent.

The first of the 260,000 refugees in Zambia began pouring over the Angolan border in 1966, as that country fought for independence from Portugal. When that independence finally came in 1975 a civil war broke out, sending more refugees into Zambia.

``It’s really an old, old, old, old problem,″ said Kelvin Shimo, spokesman for the UNHCR in Zambia. ``For the Angolans, the war is still raging, so I believe they will be here for some time.″

With many of the refugees likely to stay here for decades, new arrivals spend little time in camps before being sent to places such as Meheba, a massive ``refugee settlement″ in remote northwestern Zambia.

More than 52,000 people _ the vast majority of them Angolans _ live amid the dust and the towering grass in the 316-square-mile settlement. When Meheba was first opened in 1971, refugees were given 12 acres of land to farm. As the stream of new arrivals continued, that land allocation was cut in half.

Though Zambia has a relatively liberal policy toward refugees, they still can’t leave the settlement without a permit. Educated refugees who find work outside are allowed to leave.

The refugee crisis layers historically through Meheba like rings on a tree. Deep inside are the new arrivals, such as Larson Muzala, who fled Angola in October after soldiers, whose allegiance he could not discern, burned down his house and sacked his village.

The new refugees live in the chaos of tiny mud and stick huts and complain about their meager rations.

Across the settlement is old Meheba, a land of orderly concrete houses where families that have lived here for decades complain about the unending boredom and a feeling of being trapped.

``We’ve got nowhere to go. We are in the wild. No freedom of movement, no visiting towns, visiting places, unless they say OK. If they say no, we have to stay,″ said Christine Hepo, a 20-year-old who was born here and only left Meheba for the first time this month.

Her father, Marko, had been a respected doctor in Angola before the fighting forced him to flee with his family in 1976. His inability to speak English prevented him from practicing medicine here.

Now 69, Hepo raises corn, soybeans and cassava and waits for the war to end.

``I would just love to get back to my country. Even if I have nothing to do. I just want to get back,″ he said. ``Being here is like being in prison.″

It is a prison Shadrick Kapaso plans to escape.

With no money and no scholarships, Kapaso, 26, has been unable to continue his education since graduating high school in 1997. So he plans to walk back to Angola, a land he fled in 1989 after his village was attacked, where his mother was killed by a land mine and his father was killed by rebels. Still, he hopes the government will award him a scholarship to study peace building and conflict transformation.

He does not worry about the war or the changes in Angola since he left.

``I’ve been here so long, but I’m sure there will be no difference,″ he said. ``Angola is my native land.″

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