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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Eritrean refugees head home
Eritrean refugee (Photo: UNHCR/W. Rappeport)
The UNHCR have organised the return
Alex Last reports on the resumption of the repatriation of Eritrean refugees from eastern Sudan.

At dawn, in Lafa refugee camp, in the flat desert plains of eastern Sudan, 934 Eritreans clambered onto trucks.

The women in their brightly coloured dresses and headscarves, stood out against the brown dusty landscape, dotted by shelters of wood and plastic sheeting, as children were lifted into the vehicles.


Life in the camp was not good, its very open, when the wind blows, it gets very dusty, you get sick

Teenage Eritrean refugee
Other Eritrean refugees gathered to say goodbye, the refugees belongings, including furniture and livestock had already been loaded into trucks.

These were the first group of Eritrean refugees, to be repatriated from Sudan this year, and signals the restart of a large scale programme organised by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, in partnership with the Eritrean and Sudanese authorities

The first group to return came from some 27,000 Eritreans who still remain in Sudan after fleeing their homes to escape the Ethiopian army advance in May and June last year.

Haven

But Sudan has long been a haven for Eritreans, hundreds of thousands sought refuge in Sudan, during Eritrea's 30 year war of independence.

Eritrean child
Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans fled the war
About 150,000 still live in camps in Sudan, some have been there since 1967 making it one of the oldest refugee communities in the world

As the first convoy arrived at the border crossing point to be met by the head of the Eritrean Relief and Refugee Commission, local Eritreans gathered to welcome the refugees home, schoolchildren sang songs thanking Sudan, women threw popcorn at the trucks and ululated as the convoy passed.

The refugees who by this point, were sweltering in the heat, clapped and pointed out old friends in the crowd.

The trucks passed through villages on the way to a reception centre in the Eritrean border town of Tesseney, with local residents lining the streets to cheer and wave flags.

Joy

All the refugees, I talked to said they were overjoyed to be home, a chance to begin again away from the privations of camp life, a year which many felt had been wasted.

One old man said he could not express his joy to be home and said he was looking forward to farming again in time for the rainy season which is approaching.

Hamed Mohammed, a teenager returning with his mother and grandmother, said he was pleased to be going home as he had not been to school for the last year.

"Life in the camp was not good, its very open, when the wind blows, it gets very dusty, you get sick," he said.

The refugees will stay at the reception centre until they have been registered then they will be settled where ever they choose and given some assistance to set up home.

The repatriation programme has only received funding to return one third of the scheduled number of 60,000 this year.

Still the programme continues, but in two weeks time, there promises to be more emotional scenes when the repatriation of long term refugees begins.

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See also:

02 Aug 00 | Africa
Refugees return to Eritrea
23 May 00 | Africa
Refugee crisis spreads to Sudan
12 Jul 00 | Africa
Half of Eritrea needs aid
13 Jul 00 | Africa
Eritreans return from Ethiopia
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