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Regional Outlook : Home at Last in Africa : Mozambique, where more than 1.6 million refugees have returned, bodes well for the future of the whole continent.


NSANJE, Malawi — Sitting in a rickety barge surrounded by pots, pans and squawking chickens, Mangetsi Demba is beaming. She is finally going home.

Demba and the dozen other Mozambican refugees in the boat have lived nearly a decade here in verdant southern Malawi after fleeing their own country's brutal civil war and a series of catastrophic droughts.

"There is peace now, and I'm going home to live with my father," Demba said with a shy smile. The 35-year-old widow came to Malawi after her husband was killed by Mozambican troops.

In the past two years, more than 1.6 million refugees have voluntarily gone back to Mozambique, the former Portuguese colony on the southeast coast of Africa, from camps in Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. Their return constitutes the largest and most successful United Nations-sponsored refugee repatriation program in the world.

"It could be a model for the rest of the continent," claims Denis Venter, executive director of the Africa Institute of South Africa, a nonprofit research group in Pretoria.

At a time when the United Nations and the international community are struggling with immense refugee outflows from Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Liberia, any type of success is welcome. Nearly a third of the world's 23 million cross-border refugees live in Africa, more by far than on any other continent.

Ethnic violence, wars and severe economic turmoil mean that three out of four nations in Africa today either produce or host refugees. Meanwhile, more and more of these countries are competing for an ever-shrinking slice of U.N. relief aid. And Africa is the continent most ill-equipped to receive and care for refugees.

Refugees fleeing the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for instance, make for the prosperous economies of Germany or the United States, but those eluding ethnic pogroms in Burundi land in some of the world's poorest nations, often creating instability.

Still, African nations such as Malawi have set a remarkable standard for caring for refugees. Unlike in many Western countries, there have been few instances of forced repatriations or closed borders. Moreover, some see the relatively smooth Mozambican repatriation and the nascent peace in long-embattled Angola as signs that southern Africa, mired for years in Cold War-fueled conflicts, has achieved some regional cooperation.

"The appreciation of refugee problems [is] bringing the nations of southern Africa closer together," said Greg Mills of the South African Institute of International Affairs, a Johannesburg think tank.

Some of the blame for the crisis falls heavily on the continent's former colonial powers, such as the British and the French. Like those in most far-flung outposts of colonial empires, national boundaries in Africa were indiscriminately drawn by outsiders. So today, Somalis live deep within Ethiopia and Kenya, and Dinka and Nuer clan members are found on both sides of the Ethiopia-Sudan border. In other parts of the continent too, cross-border mingling between tribes with similar cultures has led to more or less fluid boundaries.

Such cultural kinship helped give birth to a groundbreaking convention of the Organization of African Unity in 1969. The OAU established an unusually liberal definition of international obligations to protect and care for refugees. But porous national borders, when added to internal conflicts and economic stress, often produce instability. At the turn of the decade, several new conflagrations prompted hundreds of thousands to flee.

Running away from civil war, more than 150,000 Liberians landed in the Ivory Coast at the start of the 1990s; 547,000 ended up in Guinea and Sierra Leone. Around the same time, 520,000 Somalis went to northern Kenya, escaping a famine and clan wars.

"We've seen since the end of the Cold War an emergence of conflict within national borders," said U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Gerald Walzer in a recent interview. "Many of the old blueprints don't apply anymore to the problems one has to address."

According to the refugee agency, there are now 848,000 Liberian exiles in various West African nations. Somalis by the hundreds of thousands have crossed into neighboring countries. In Sudan, a decades-old civil war between the Christian south and the Muslim north has uprooted more than 3 million people and sent 391,000 to camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Zaire. Sudan itself shelters more than 600,000 refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Ethiopia.

But in no region of Africa is the dire plight of refugees and of those who are caring for them more haunting than in the so-called Great Lakes area of Central Africa. Genocide in Rwanda and Burundi has elevated Zaire to the unenviable title of world's leading asylum-giving country. More than 1.8 million refugees live in grim and massive camps.

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