Two million people back home!

Two million people back home!
  • PublishedMarch 19, 2013

In what has been described as the biggest peacetime movement of people since World War II, South Sudan has received nearly two million returnees from the North since its independence in July 2011. Kate Eshelby reports from Juba.

In the blaze of harsh sunlight, rickety beds and suitcases are everywhere, scattered outside in the brainnumbing heat. Some cases lie open, piled with crumpled clothes. There are dusty TVs, a forlorn teddy bear, and people on mats under mosquito nets. But despite tough conditions, life goes on. A woman has just given birth, a family boils water for tea, and cooking and washing is being done.

This is a way-station on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan’s capital, in the world’s newest country. Over 1,300 returnees wait here, often for weeks, with all their worldly possessions, before moving on to other places where they will settle. Nearly two million people have returned home to their motherland since South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, seceding from Sudan, its northern neighbour. “This is the biggest peacetime movement of population since World War II,” Anne Bennett, who works for Radio Miraya, a local UN network, says.

Many of the returnees coming from Sudan arrive by bus or truck. Others use the train or barges down the Nile River. Travel in such an isolated country – larger than France with few roads, across flat swampland that regularly floods – is no mean feat. Some have never even been to South Sudan before, but they have chosen to return to their ancestral land despite the hardships of starting a new life in a war-ravaged country with no infrastructure.

In a peace deal, signed in 2005, Africa’s longest civil war finally ended and Khartoum agreed to a six-year interim period, before holding a referendum when southerners could vote for their independence. An almost unanimous 99% chose to secede. Since Britain and Egypt created Sudan’s borders, the North and South have never felt joined in this vast country, once Africa’s largest: they have a different culture, religion, and ethnicity. South Sudan is rich in resources – especially oil – but the North has always exploited the South and kept the region undeveloped.

It was, however, the attempt to impose Sharia law and refusing the South its right to self-determination that caused the rebel army, the SPLA, to split from the Sudan armed forces in 1983. Since the signing of the peace accord, people have returned from where they fled during the war. It is recorded that 1,917,200 have returned – with 135,000 arriving last year alone. It has been a colossal undertaking –transporting people as well as all their possessions – with ongoing insecurity hindering travel and the few roads that exist completely impassable during the rainy season. The borders were closed between North and South because of ongoing disagreements flaring up again, leaving people stranded; some for over a year. People at the way-station describe the problems of illness and a lack of food while they travelled south, but explain why they came:

“I lived in Khartoum for 20 years,” Kate Moryal, one returnee, says. “Life there, in many ways, is better. It’s hard here but this is my country.”

Her friend, Rose Zakaria, says: “We face an unknown future. This is a new nation starting from scratch but we hope things will improve.” She adds that she wants to help build the country and raise her children on their own land. The decision to move, however, is a giant undertaking. The journey is long and families often become separated.

The journeys by barge are especially arduous, with people living in cramped conditions for weeks, so disease easily spreads. And some fall overboard and drown. “Often female-headed households, or even child-headed, make this journey alone having lost their family through war,” says Maria Ferrante from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. At least initially returnees are hosted by their relatives. “I was separated during the war from my parents. I didn’t even know if they were still alive. But when I returned I found them,” Cecilia Kiden, one returnee, now living in Bunj town in Maban county, says jubilantly. “As the buses and barges arrive people break into song. It’s incredibly emotional as families are reunited.”

Her neighbour, Lidia Abdulay, returned from Khartoum in March last year. The government of South Sudan set April 2012 as the deadline for southerners living in the North to regularise their status. “I did not want to be left in the North. In Khartoum you clear the land to build a house; only to be moved on, but here you are free to stay,” Abdulay observes. A visit to the government’s Return and Reintegration Committee (RRC) office reveals how the South Sudan authorities are dealing with the influx of returnees.

The manager, Alex, a returnee himself, says: “In Khartoum the police arrest you for no reason, they put you in gaol for days and then demand money. Life without freedom is impossible.” A lot of hope comes with a new nation because the returnees face many challenges. South Sudan is achingly poor with no services, economy or trade. Illiteracy is high with few schools, and what schools there are mainly consist of classes held under trees. Even the dilapidated new capital, Juba – a garrison town during the war – has no sewage system and limited piped water.

One of the biggest obstacles for returnees is getting a job. Samin Deng Ngong fled to Darfur during the war, but has now returned to Maper Akot, a village in Northern Bahr El Ghazal. “In Darfur, I was a guard, but I can’t find a job here,” he says. Coupled with this are the challenges of high living expenses. Border closures have led to soaring food and fuel prices, both of which have to be imported, mainly from Uganda and Kenya.

The World Food Programme estimates that over 2.4 million people in South Sudan rely on food aid. Seasonal floods also destroy crops. Disease is another problem, exacerbated by the lack of clean water and flooding. “Diarrhoea and malaria are big killers here because there is no healthcare,” Kate-Louise Howard, a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) nurse working in Aweil told New African. A mother, cradling her painfully-thin child, tells me that the MSF provides the area’s only decent hospital.

Some returnees come home only to be called traitors because they did not stay and fight. “While living in Khartoum, I was labelled an ‘Abd’ [a derogatory Arab word for southerners meaning slave], and now I’m home I’m still different,” Ngor Akol Jongkor, a nurse in the hospital, says.

Language is a hurdle because English is the newborn country’s official language, but many returnees speak only Arabic after life in Khartoum. Land is the key to the returnees starting a new life, but the issue remains sensitive. The ease of land allocation depends on the area in which one settles, and South Sudan is a widely diverse, complex country. The government says that returnees should return to their place of origin, but with no effective justice system this is hard to implement. “Here, chiefs are the law,” Mary says, a returnee living in Bor. Mary has created a small livelihood for herself by building a coffee shop under plastic sheeting, but has since been told she has to move.

“Displaced forever, that’s how life is here,” she continues. I visit one returnee community in Maduany, on the outskirts of Aweil where 8,500 people live temporarily, waiting to be permanently settled. “We can’t farm until we are given land,” Achela Garang says. The plan is to move them to Rumtit, far from Aweil town, with no water, healthcare, schools or roads. “We became used to city life in Khartoum so we wanted to settle in a town, not in the middle-of-nowhere, without services,” Achela continues. Many returnees, although born in the bush, have been urbanised living in the diaspora.

Land allocation has to be carefully handled because the influx of returnees exerts pressure on already scarce resources (such as water and firewood) in host communities, and this can cause conflict, as there is a reluctance to share resources with returnees. There has been a mass influx of refugees along the border between South Sudan and Sudan – where about 175,000 now live in camps – as fighting continues in the north. Maban’s camps have 115,000 refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile state, who fled the conflict in 2011. Flying in on one of the WFP helicopters (the only way in for foreigners) shows white tarpaulin tents, with the distinctive blue UNHCR logo, stretching for miles and miles.

Squelching around the camp, in knee high mud, one lady tells me how she escaped her village after her home had been torched by rebels armed by Khartoum. She travelled for two months to get here – on foot – with seven children.

Abdala Bous, another refugee, spent years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, until returning home after peace; only to have to flee again when bombing resumed in 2011 forcing him into yet another refugee camp, this time in South Sudan. On top of the returnees and refugees, South Sudan also sits in the middle of a volatile region so refugees also flood in from neighbouring DRCongo, Uganda, and Ethiopia, and there is huge internal displacement. Last year, 170,000 were displaced in South Sudan where ethnic rivalry is rife (with over 60 ethnic groups), causing returnees to return to bloodshed – often over cattle raids. In Jonglei State, cattle rustling is a centuries old tradition, but bloodier now because pastoralists are armed to the teeth; guns replacing spears. “People are forced to steal cows because of poverty,” Simon Lem, a Dinka man, says. “And with no law enforcement there is nothing to prevent them.”

Jonglei State alone has six ethnic groups, all proud of their warrior traditions, but it is a segment of the Murle ethnic group, led by David Yau Yau, which is destabilising the region. The unrest, however, goes beyond cows. It is about power. Disgruntled former SPLA fighters bicker over who holds the biggest government positions and some believe the government hands out its few resources unevenly, favouring the Dinka (the president’s ethnic group), who had a large role in the war.

After spending time in South Sudan, one quickly realises that the claim to peace is not so simple. One lady says: “The peace is just a piece of paper. The Arabs know in their heart, just as I know in mine that we don’t yet have it.” Outstanding issues of secession still need to be agreed such as citizenship, border demarcation, and the status of the oil-rich border regions of Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. There is no doubt that Khartoum has created territorial pawns to bargain for oil cash, such as the spurious land claims. War nearly erupted again over oil, causing a temporary shutdown of the industry; with disastrous economic consequences.

“As long as there are border tensions, money will be spent on the military rather than development,” Lem says. A new nation rich in resources may throw up challenges for its returnees but also poses promises for foreigners who have flooded in for everything from gold to road building. Juba is growing – supermarkets and hotels are being thrown up among the straw huts. And Ugandans, Kenyans, Eritreans and Ethiopians are surging in. One Kenyan waiter in Juba says: “In Kenya, there is a lot of competition so it is hard to find a job. But here they only know how to fight, so there are lots of opportunities.” Mabior Garang De-Mabior, the eldest son of the late SPLA leader, John Garang, believes that despite the country’s potential, the returnees’ hopes have been dashed. “Already?” I ask. “Garang wanted a unified country, with all ethnic groups equal and an end to marginalisation,” Mabior Garang replies. “But the SPLA has failed. It is as if the movement has suffered amnesia. “People say the nation is just over a year old, but the government has had money since peace in 2005, so more progress should have been made.”

Mabior Garang is angry that the central bank is empty in an oil-rich country. “Although our people are starving, they [the government] talk about creating animal-shaped cities costing $10 billion,” he points out.

Yet despite all this, the mass movement of returnees continues like the Nile that flows endlessly through South Sudan. Thousands more are expected to arrive from the North this year. They too will come with hope, and to rebuild their lives in this new nation.

Written By
New African

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