"Threatened with death, I had to cross the river and reach Brazzaville, where I enjoy refugee status with my wife and children. Life is hard here but we are safe," the 65-year-old Tumba said. Now, after a historic election in Congo, he believes his "long ordeal" may come to an end.
He and tens of thousands of other Congolese who fled, mostly for political reasons, to neighboring Republic of Congo under Joseph Kabila's 17-year rule say that with opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi now president in their home country, they can envision returning soon.
The new president on Friday, during a visit to Republic of Congo's capital, invited all political exiles to come home. "All those who have left the country and who have been pushed into exile for political or ideological reasons are free to return home," Tshisekedi said. "To you our compatriots of the diaspora, we will create favorable conditions to put an end to everything that made you flee abroad."
Everyone will be needed to move Congo forward, Tshisekedi said. He has inherited a vast, troubled nation after a disputed election that was delayed by more than two years as many feared that Kabila would try to stay in power.
"The long-awaited moment by more than 60,000 (Congo) refugees in Congo Brazzaville has finally arrived. Because many of us, very old today, were not going to survive (if Kabila stayed on)," said the 71-year-old E. Mutombo, who asserted that he had been close to the late President Mobutu Sese Seko. He came to Brazzaville in 1996 as Mobutu's rule neared an end.
Many exiles in Brazzaville had been part of the armed forces or special division elements during Mobutu's era, or have been radical members of the opposition party founded by Tshisekedi's late father, Etienne.
"The reasons for political exile no longer exist," said Annie Mballa, a former nurse in a hospital in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, who was exiled with her husband, a former military member under Mobutu. "Many of us have decided to return without waiting."
But there have been some mixed reactions. Gaelle Makambo, 21, said she welcomes the outreach by Congo's new president but is still hesitant. She will wait for passport prices to go down and education to improve in Congo before returning, she said.
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