[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
DUKWE, 5 March (IRIN) - In spite of assurances over their safety by the Namibian government, Caprivians in the Dukwe refugee camp in neighbouring Botswana remain reluctant to return home.
So far, not one Caprivian out of the remaining 1,200 in Dukwe has registered for the next round of voluntary repatriation due on 26 March, camp manager Santino Benedettino from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told IRIN.
"The ones that are left are the ones that really want Caprivi to be 'free'," he said.
They are overwhelmingly members of the Mafwe ethnic group from eastern Caprivi, loyal to separatist leader Mishak Muyongo. In 1998 and again in 1999, a total of 2,400 Caprivians fled into Botswana to escape a crackdown on secessionist sympathisers by the Namibian authorities.
Last year, Namibia signed an agreement with UNHCR and Botswana to guarantee the safety of returning Caprivians. Under the terms of the tri-partite accord, UNHCR has helped repatriate a total of 913 refugees to Caprivi from Dukwe since August 2002. But the majority of the voluntary returnees were San bushmen from Western Caprivi, who were not linked to separatist politics.
To help build confidence in the process, UNHCR has monitors on the ground in the northeast of the country. "They provide follow up from a protection point of view to make sure conditions in the tri-partite agreement are adhered to," Cosmos Chanda, the head of the UNHCR office in Botswana, told IRIN.
His overall assessment was that "the situation has improved and the Namibian government should be encouraged, and deserve a pat on the back when it comes to the level of political maturity they have demonstrated in handling the Caprivi issue," he said.
That, however, was not a view shared by the Caprivians in Dukwe IRIN spoke to. As an indication of the alleged lack of security, they pointed to the killing in November 2002 of five men the government alleged were armed members of the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA) on Situngu island. The authorities claimed the men had come from Botswana, but independent observers suggested they were more likely to have been poachers.
Over 120 Caprivians are still awaiting trial charged with treason over an attack on the provincial capital of Katima Mulilo in August 1999 by the CLA that left 12 people dead. Since their arrest, nine of the original detainees have died in detention.
"It's not long ago when some of our brothers were killed [on Situngu island]. Arrests are continuing and our brothers are still in prison," one of the Caprivian leaders in Dukwe, who asked not to be named, told IRIN.
"If [UNHCR] says there is peace now, why has the government not released our brothers? I have totally lost hope and trust in UNHCR, because for them, when somebody is repatriated, it relieves them of that person's feeding. They just dump you at the border and don't care," he charged.
A younger Caprivian that IRIN spoke to also insisted that repatriation was not safe. "How can my life not be in danger when my father's still in prison?" he asked.
The allegations of a cavalier approach to repatriation by UNHCR, by what are essentially the hardcore supporters of Caprivi "independence", are refuted by the refugee agency.
Chanda explained that the two repatriation convoys that took place in 2002 were well-regulated, with precautions taken to ensure that adequate shelter, food and water was provided at the border crossing. Returnees were often met by their families, and were transported to their homes on the second day of their arrival by the Namibian authorities, after being equipped with food packs and seeds and tools by a joint UNHCR-Namibian government reintegration committee.
Chanda said that UNHCR was wary of a repeat of 1999, when Caprivians that had fled into Botswana the year before were returned, only to flee again when the government clamped down in the wake of the attack on Katima Mulilo.
"If they have to come back a second time [to Dukwe] it will be near impossible to ever get them to leave," he said. "We continue to ask people to sign up [for repatriation] and continue to monitor the situation. We haven't reached the stage where we can pack up and go [from Dukwe]."
Ross Sanoto, the settlement commandant in Dukwe from Botswana's Office of the President, acknowledged that the remaining Caprivians were largely still suspicious of the Namibian government. "UNHCR has a monitoring station in Katima Mulilo and we are really hopeful that this office will be vigilant enough not to miss out on any signs of persecution. Some times we get allegations of murder, now we can corroborate that with the Katima Mulilo office, rather than the police," he said.
But, having visited Caprivi himself, he said: "As far as I'm concerned, the situation there doesn't really warrant people fleeing. [Although] yes, the police might have been ruthless in the past ... the situation has abated."
Dukwe has been in existence for 25 years as a shelter for refugees fleeing Africa's conflicts. But with just 4,000 refugees remaining from 16 countries, the Botswana government is keen to use the facility for other "development" purposes, Sanoto said.
The Namibian and Botswana authorities are due to meet later this year when the issue of the Caprivians and their repatriation is likely to be discussed.
But for the Caprivians in Dukwe, the only solution, one man explained, was for "a dialogue between [Namibian President] Sam Nujoma and our leader [Muyongo, granted asylum in Denmark in 1998] to discuss our future."
For more details on the Situngo island affair and background on the Caprivi crisis see: http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=30895