21 July 2008Displaced people today began returning to their homes in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with the help of the United Nations refugee agency. Five boats chartered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ferried the first group of 712 people – from a settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Tchomia – across Lake Albert to the town of Gobu in the Ituri district of DRC’s Orientale province. A further 1,800 IDPs are expected to return by this route in the coming weeks.“Now, I can have a real roof and not live any more under plastic sheeting,” one 52-year-old returnee told a UNHCR protection officer.UNHCR was also scheduled to resume on Monday another IDP return operation in the province. The refugee agency hopes to assist the return of almost 7,000 people from Beni and Eringhety to Komanda and the Ituri capital, Bunia, starting with a first group of 220 people.Some 3,000 IDPs have returned home under this operation, which was suspended by UNHCR in December for security reasons amid clashes between rebel fighters and troops of the DRC armed forces.Some 600,000 displaced Congolese remain in the Ituri region, living in settlements or with host families. Many fled their homes during the DRC’s wider civil war between 1996 and 2002, which left 50,000 civilians in Ituri dead, while thousands more left their homes when inter-ethnic clashes erupted in 2003 all over the district. UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies are now in a recovery and reintegration phase, helping to reconstruct homes, schools and health centres, and providing seeds and agricultural tools to farmers in Ituri. Those retuning on Monday were each given a return package that included blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting and construction tools. They also received food aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and agricultural assistance from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).UNHCR believes that some returnees are likely to face land disputes when they get home – a problem throughout DRC. The agency is supporting dispute resolution mechanisms aimed at tackling the issue.Despite sporadic outbreaks of violence in the Ituri region, significant progress has been made since 2004 in restoring lasting peace, disarming and demobilizing rival military forces, and reintegrating fighters into society. UNHCR says it now plans to wrap up the assisted return programme by the end of this year.