By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR - Congolese activist Evariste Mfaume decided to take action when he found out that thousands of his compatriots who had fled war 20 years ago wanted to come home, but had no place to go.
He lobbied the government for land and helped set up farms for 19,000 returning families - an achievement recognised by the United Nations this week when it awarded him the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, set up to honour "everyday heroes".
"If you return but you don't have shelter, you don't know where to take your family, it is like you are still in war," Mfaume told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview on Thursday.
Democratic Republic of Congo was engulfed in war from 1996 to 2003 and several smaller conflicts still simmer.
About 150,000 people fled Congo's South Kivu province for Tanzania in 1996. Two decades later the war was over, but people who fled as children now had families, and their villages had been destroyed or resettled.
Convincing the government to give returnees land was not easy, said Mfaume, and required long trips to negotiate with authorities in the capital, about 2,000 km (1,200 miles) away.
"Land is a precious resource. When you negotiate, you have to have good arguments to justify it, and to show that those who occupy it will make it productive," he said.
The government allocated vacant land in the bush, where aid agencies helped the first returnees build houses, and then others came to join them. The communities they set up, all in South Kivu province, are called "peace villages".
Mfaume said he is now turning his attention to helping people displaced within the country re-start their lives and avoid conflict with host communities.
"Even if we don't have many options, we cannot be passive," he said.
In all, 850,000 Congolese have fled abroad and another 4.5 million have been forced from their homes by conflict, according to the United Nations.
Along with Mfaume, who is the winner for Africa, four other regional winners have been selected for the U.N. Refugee Agency's 2019 Nansen award and an overall winner will be announced on Oct. 2.
"Despite the challenges, Mfaume is proof that one person can make a difference by putting in place long-term projects bringing peace and stability," said U.N. spokesman Fabien Faivre.