People living in a tent city for the displaced near Bangui airport in the Central African Republic started packing up their belongings Thursday and heading home, an AFP journalist said.
Plans to evacuate the airport camp, where tens of thousands of people have taken refuge since the country's brutal conflict erupted in 2013, were dubbed "Home for Christmas".
At the peak of the crisis, nearly 80,000 people took shelter in the Mpoko camp. Many have since returned home, though nearly 30,000 remain to this day.
In an initiative launched by President Faustin-Archange Touadera, the airport began to be evacuated Thursday, spelling the end of a camp that visitors arriving in Bangui International Airport would see minutes after landing.
The vast majority of camp residents are from Bangui, and so only have a few kilometres (miles) to travel in order to return to their homes.
They had sought refuge in the camp by the airport during a civil war that erupted in 2013 following the overthrow of former president Francois Bozize, a Christian, by Muslim rebels from the Seleka coalition.
The area near the airport was deemed safe because French soldiers deployed in Central Africa and a UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) had a presence there.
"This is just the beginning of the operation. It concerns 28,000 people. Every day, displaced people living in at least one zone will go home and this will take at least 13 days," Social Affairs Minister Virginie Baikoua said.
- 'Thank God we're going home' -
People living in the camp said they were glad to go home, and hoped the authorities and the UN could guarantee their safety.
"It's been just over three years that I've been here with my family. We didn't have the choice, faced with the violence and massacres," tradeswoman Yvette Pandone Kitiye said.
In the airport camp "we have been exposed to other risks... Thank God we're going home. The government and MINUSCA will have to ensure that the displaced who are returning home are safe," said Jean Ndende, a teacher.
Many of those living in the camp had fled the flashpoint PK5 neighbourhood, a Muslim neighbourhood of Bangui where armed groups remain active to date.
Among the PK5 residents, many had seen their homes looted or burnt to the ground.
While Bangui is now relatively calm, militias are still flourishing elsewhere given the weakness of the state.
MINUSCA on Wednesday condemned in a report what it described as "an alarming increase" in human rights violations in recent months.
The report came after UN chief Ban Ki-moon on November 29 called on armed groups to "immediately stop the violence".