NAIROBI, 5 December 2011 (IRIN) - Some have camped for months waiting for
promised transport to South Sudan, others have been and returned,
disappointed with life in the world's newest state.
Five months after the South gained independence, the fate of hundreds of
thousands of southerners living north of the border remains uncertain,
particularly so as the Northern military battles borderland rebels it
accuses Juba of sponsoring.
Even their numbers lack any consensus: 700,000, according to the UN, 150,000
according to Khartoum.
Most lost their Sudanese citizenship after secession on 9 July and were
given nine months - until 9 April 2012 - to "regularize their status", but
were not told what this means in practice.
Many have spent their entire lives in the north; dual nationality has been
More than 350,000 people of southern origin have headed south on their own
over the past year, another 130,000 with help from the UN Refugee Agency
(UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration. By the end of the
year, UNHCR expects a further 140,000 to register for assisted return.
Tens of thousands still in the north, who have made the first steps to
returning, selling their homes and many of their possessions, have found
themselves stuck in temporary camps with limited access to basic amenities.
"The hardest thing is that nothing has changed since the independence of
South Sudan," said Victor Rabbi, leader of a camp called Al-Andaluz, in Mayo
"We sold everything months ago because we thought we would go back to our
homeland in July. We have nothing left. Not even a job. Since independence,
as South Sudanese we no longer have the right to work in the public sector
or for NGOs," he said.
The camp consists of hundreds of shelters made from wood and fabric and is
home to 3,600 people.
Water is brought in by mules, and two four-litre jerry cans are sold for
five pounds (US$1.80), a considerable expense for the residents.
Children cannot go to school any more, as they are no longer considered
Sudanese. In the absence of electricity, power cables serve as skipping
ropes for the girls.
"We are waiting for someone to tell us to leave," said Rabbi.
Forty families arrived at Al-Andaluz over a year ago. In the run-up to
independence, there were promises of lorries paid for by the South Sudan
But the conflict in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile has
led to the closure of all land routes between the two countries. In any
case, seasonal rains also make it almost impossible to travel by road.
Since April, the journey south can only be made by river barge or train.
While six train services have been funded, departures are not easy to
"The train is protected by soldiers from Sudanese army until [the railway
junction at] Babanusa. Then, SPLA [South Sudanese army] soldiers take over.
The train goes through areas vulnerable to attacks. The journey to [the
southern railhead town of] Wau takes 17 days," said Paul Urayo, who works in
the Khartoum office handling the registration of South Sudanese from the
Bahr al-Ghazal region.
"It is impossible to say how long the return trip will take in such
difficult conditions," Urayo said.
After independence, the local government in some states in South Sudan
chartered 16 trucks to carry returnees' luggage.
Months later much of the luggage is still stuck in Al-Andaluz, held by
transport companies, which say they have not yet been paid for their
services by local authorities in South Sudan.
"If it goes on like this, we'll have to write off our things," said Rabbi.
"Then we really will have nothing when we arrive in South Sudan to rebuild
Slow boat to Juba
The main departures point for those heading to the southern and central
states of South Sudan are the near-adjacent river Nile ports of Kosti and
Renk, which more or less straddle the border.
But in the absence of commercial traffic, the 12-day passage to Juba is only
possible on barges operated by the International Organization for Migration
(IOM), meaning an average wait of more than 100 days. According to the IOM,
once barges carrying 3,000 people leave Kosti soon, some 8,000 to 10,000
people will still be left waiting there, with another 22,000 in Renk, on the
South Sudan side of the border.
Many returnees, if they have the means to do so, double back to the north,
despite the uncertainty. This is particularly the case in South Sudan states
experiencing armed conflict. Some 12 percent of those who travelled to Upper
Nile, Unity as well as Western and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal have returned
north, according to Ismael Ibrahim, an internal displacement expert working
in North Sudan's Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs.
Among them was Paul*, who arrived with his wife and three children in
Unity's capital, Bentiu, to the sound of landmine explosions and clashes
between government forces and rebels.
"It was too dangerous. One day, I was the victim of an ambush on the way to
my job as a school teacher. I decided to come back to Khartoum," he told
IRIN, adding that he plans to send his children to school in either Uganda
The stark contrast between living in a city with some semblance of amenities
and trying to get by in a rural area almost entirely lacking in public
services and infrastructure is another reason returnees head back north.
"I sent my wife and my children to Juba in March ," Santurino, an
English teacher, told IRIN in Khartoum.
"There was no electricity or running water in their hut. My two eldest
children [eight and five years old] couldn't go to school because the
classes were overcrowded, and it was hard for them to understand Juba Arabic
[a mix of Arabic and Kiswahili spoken in Juba], which the other children
"My children were happy to come back to Khartoum. I agree that everyone has
to make sacrifices, but only if it is to build the country. But six years
after the peace agreement [ending years of north-south civil war], the
government has done nothing and I absolutely don't believe that there will
be an improvement by April," he said.
But most southerners living in Khartoum lack the means to make such choices
and some do not even believe anyone doubles back once they have headed
"That's just propaganda from the Khartoum government!" insisted Garang Akog
Madi, who lives in Al-Youssif, a northern district of the capital.
Exactly what status the "foreign" South Sudanese will be accorded if they
stay in the north after the April deadline - whether, for example, they will
be allowed, like Egyptian nationals, to travel freely in and out of the
country - depends on the outcome of post-secession negotiations between the
But there has been little sign of progress in these stop-start talks, which
also focus, with seemingly more priority, on oil, financial arrangements,
border demarcation, and the status of the Abyei region.
*Not his real name
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Received on Mon Dec 05 2011 - 19:13:04 EST