SOUTH SUDAN: World's newest state offers little for thousands of returnees
WAU, 21 March 2012 (IRIN) - They have returned in their hundreds of
thousands, by train, barge, bus and plane, often after decades of
war-enforced absence; but coming home to what recently, and euphorically,
became the world's newest state, the Republic of South Sudan, is often the
beginning of yet another chapter of struggle and destitution.
On one of the main roads in Wau, a railhead town held by Khartoum throughout
the 1983-2005 civil war which devastated much of what was then called
southern Sudan and which put two million people to flight, there is an old
poster that reads: "Vote for separation to become first class citizens in
your own country and say bye-bye to repression and marginalization."
In January 2011, 98 percent of southerners complied with that injunction and
in July a new flag was raised in the capital, Juba, as good riddance was
finally bid to rule from distant Khartoum. Just as they had upon the 2005
signing of the comprehensive peace accord, long-absent southerners headed
home in droves.
In August 2011 a passenger train arrived in Wau from Khartoum for the first
time in years; it was packed with jubilant returnees eager to enjoy the
fruits of long yearned-for peace and freedom.
For one of those passengers, 42-year-old auto mechanic Charles John, these
fruits have yet to ripen. Since his arrival, he, his wife and six children
have been living in a warehouse near the town's railway station. While only
a few dozen people lived in what is locally termed the "hangar" when IRIN
visited in mid-March, the building would soon be jam-packed with passengers
from another train that pulled into Wau a few days later.
"I decided to come back to my own country because I was a foreigner [in
Khartoum] and faced discrimination. We were not welcomed; if we built a home
we would be chased away after two or three years. This happened many times,"
"I was happy to come back. I expected a better life, with school for the
children and a better chance of getting a job. But when I arrived, things
turned out differently. I have no job, I am still in the hangar, the
children are not in school and I am still waiting for my plot. I don't know
when I will get it," he said.
Complicated plot allocation
A parcel of land is among the incentives for return promoted by South
Sudan's government. But the process is complicated, involving shuffling
paperwork between the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, and the
ministries of social affairs and of physical infrastructure. In the absence
of clear national land policy guidelines, decisions are often ultimately
made on an ad-hoc basis by local chiefs.
In some areas, returnees have been asked to prove their historical ties to a
place before they are allocated land there. For those who may have been away
for 30 years, providing such documentation is impossible.
Such long absences have often been spent in urban environments such as
Khartoum, while allocated plots tend to be in rural areas with little or no
amenities or commercial opportunities, increasing the hardships of host
communities in receiving areas.
According to Refugees International, government development plans treat "the
return and reintegration of hundreds of thousands of people as a short-term
issue, requiring only a food package and assistance with shelter. However,
this assistance, valuable as it is, does not help the returnees to integrate
into South Sudan's social, political and economic life."
An added hurdle is the low rates of literacy among returnees, 60 percent of
whom are under the age of 18. Most of those who attended school while in
Khartoum would have been taught in Arabic and so have a low level of the
English which would help them get ahead on their return to South Sudan.
Moving back is particularly difficult for vulnerable returnees, such as
war-widowed hangar resident Helena Elario Nur, who is blind. Like more than
23,000 people, she returned to South Sudan with the assistance of the
International Organization for Migration. Some 360,000 people returned in
"I am just waiting for my plot. Life here is very difficult. I think
Khartoum was better than this because I have just arrived and have not
adapted to life here. In Khartoum, some churches helped me. When I got here
I was given some rations by the World Food Programme, but they ran out a
week ago. I try to get by selling a bit of dried okra, but it's hard to find
food for the children."
Across South Sudan, poor harvests, rising food prices, the closure of the
border with Sudan, and several armed conflicts have conspired to leave
> 4.7 million people in need of food aid
Decades of civil war, which first erupted in the mid 1950s, prevented any
significant development in the south, where only a minority has access to
basic infrastructure such as rainproof roads, health centres and education.
And the new government's capacity to meet the simplest needs of its eight
million citizens has been drastically eroded by its January decision, amid a
revenue-sharing row with Sudan, to shut down the flow of oil that accounted
for 98 percent of its revenue. A series of austerity measures will not
change the fact that the government will run out of money in June.
Another 120,000 southerners are expected to return voluntarily from Sudan in
the coming months. And the exodus could be considerably larger: southerners
living in Sudan, even those who were born there, were denied Sudanese
citizenship when the country split in two, and were given a deadline of 8
April to "regularize" their status or leave.
Deal not yet implemented
Fears of such a mass movement southwards were partly assuaged earlier this
month when both governments agreed in principle that each other's citizens
would enjoy rights of residence, employment, free movement and to buy and
But this deal has yet to be implemented, leaving open the possibility of
vast numbers of southerners, up to 10,000 a day according to CARE, an NGO,
descending on places like Renk - a border town and returnee way station in
the northeast of South Sudan - at a time when rains and other logistical
constraints would prevent onward transportation to their places of origin.
A few kilometers from Wau lies the new settlement of Alel Chock, which is
populated by some of those who have been allocated land by the local
authorities. Thanks to international aid agencies, it boasts water pumps, a
health clinic and a school building, facilities that make its residents
better off than 60 percent of South Sudan's citizens.
But as new arrival Abdel Abdullah Afrangi, a 57-year-old chemical technician
who left southern Sudan in 1968, told IRIN, even with such rare amenities,
starting a new life here is daunting prospect.
"The problem we are facing is joblessness. Most of us are skilled workers:
electricians, carpenters and the like. But we have no source of income. I am
thinking of going somewhere to get a job, but I must prepare my plot, I
can't just abandon it," he said.
"We want the government to look after our children, who are our future. But
the school is not functioning properly and they are not well fed," he added.
Despite the hardships of homecoming, almost all of the returnees who spoke
to IRIN in Wau said they would remain in South Sudan.
"I have hope for the future, that things will get better," said John.
"I won't go back to Khartoum unless there is war."
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Received on Wed Mar 21 2012 - 19:37:30 EDT