Lusaka - The United Nations refugee agency has launched the final phase of the voluntary repatriation of 34 500 refugees from camps in Zambia to their homes in Angola after nearly two decades of civil war.
A group of 75 Angolans left the sprawling Meheba refugee camp, 720km north-west of Lusaka on Tuesday in the first of a series of weekly convoys.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that up to half a million Angolans fled their country during the ruinous war, which ended with a peace accord in April 2002. It launched a massive repatriation programme in 2003 to help them return from neighbouring countries, mainly Zambia, Congo and Namibia.
UNHCR head of the Southern Africa desk, Ahmed Said Farah, said that so far more than 45 000 Angolans had been repatriated from Zambia. Farah said the agency hoped that the remaining 34 500 would leave this year.
Angolan charge d'affaires, Joao Da Costa, assured the returning refugees that their country was now at peace and encouraged them to rebuild their lives.
Augusto Jembe, 21, an Angolan refugee who spent his whole life in Zambia, was optimistic about the future.
"I am very excited," he said. "I have always wanted to go back home. That's why I took the first convoy," he said.