Nearly 200,000 South Sudanese have fled the conflict in neighbouring Sudan and headed back home over the past four months. But what do these journeys entail and what is life like for returnees in a country not short of its own problems?
To find out answers, The New Humanitarian asked South Sudanese reporters Okech Francis and Joseph Ngor Deng to follow one returnee for several weeks, tracking them from their arrival back in South Sudan to the moment they reached their home village.
Francis and Deng got in touch with Abul Mathiang Ngong, who is in her thirties and moved from South Sudan to Sudan when she was a toddler. She went to live in Khartoum and married a Sudanese businessman, with whom she had eight children.
Ngong’s story underscores the challenges South Sudanese returnees – who are among nearly one million people that have left Sudan since conflict erupted on 15 April – face in accessing humanitarian and social services.
The new arrivals have gone back to a country with extremely high levels of need: Three quarters of the South Sudanese population require aid this year – the result of climate shocks and violent conflicts that have persisted despite a 2018 peace deal.
Stil, Ngong’s account also contains positives: It shows how communities are supporting returnees despite their own challenges. And it shows how families have been able to reunite after years or even decades spent apart.
“The hospitality we found here was not what many people expected,” Ngong told Francis and Deng. “We had been hearing of an internal war in South Sudan, but I have met people that have become my friends.”
For more on the challenges facing South Sudanese returnees, read our recent in-depth article. And for more on the failure of the government, relief agencies, and aid donors to help the new arrivals, check out this recent opinion piece.
The following text is based on four interviews conducted between June and August in a refugee transit centre and in Ngong’s home village. The text has been edited for length and clarity.
Part 1: Arrival
‘I was told I am South Sudanese and must go to my home’
When fighting broke out in Khartoum, I travelled to my husband’s home in the Sudanese town of El Obeid. We prepared for the worst. My husband was a shopkeeper and I kept imagining that we would be an easy target for attacks and robberies.
In early May, my husband decided that my children and I should leave Sudan. I packed a few belongings and we moved towards Darfur, which is across the border from my home state in South Sudan.
The roads were very frightening and almost everybody was on the run. I kept praying for our safety. My children and I would sometimes sleep in the open and were very prone to attacks.
I walked on foot to El Deien, a town in Darfur. From there, I travelled to the South Sudan border. On 17 May, I finally arrived at Wedwiel refugee transit centre in South Sudan’s Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, which is where I am from.
My children were registered as refugees in Wedwiel but I was not. Despite being married to a Sudanese, I was told I am South Sudanese and must go to my home village. I was so frustrated.
Is it not true that in this country, if you are married to a Sudanese, you do not become part of the Sudanese, I asked. But the management of the centre said we can only register your children and not you.
My children were provided with rice, beans, and maize flour in Wedwiel, and they were given a plastic sheet which they shared with me. But it wasn't enough. I had to go to the bush with other women to collect edible wild leaves to supplement the food.
Since I could not be registered as a refugee, I was not given any assistance. I survived thanks to other refugees who shared the little they had with me. I was not even given a sheet for sleeping on. I found some cardboard and used that instead.
If it is possible to hold the government and other organisations to account for the way they distribute food to those who came from Sudan, I hope this information will be used as evidence of the inequality.
Part 2: Back home
‘I was welcomed and honoured’
Because I did not receive assistance at the Wedwiel centre, I had to plan to go to my home village. But I could not leave my children alone in Wedwiel. How can a child be left on their own without the guidance of their mother? It was not an option.
I decided to contact relatives in my village, which is called Bakou Malow. It was a difficult decision because my eight children are all Sudanese and I did not know how they would be accepted by the community.
“I was welcomed and honoured by relatives who slaughtered a goat. I enjoyed the hospitality. It was very nice to reunite with family members who I had not physically met before. It felt very good being given respect.”
I finally arrived in Bakou Malow on 4 July, and I was given a small hut at the home of my uncle. Given the size of our hut, most of our time during the days has been spent sitting under the shade of a tree.
I was welcomed and honoured by relatives who slaughtered a goat. I enjoyed the hospitality. It was very nice to reunite with family members who I had not physically met before. It felt very good being given respect. Their young ones even call me Aunty Abul.
But getting food has been difficult. Even after registering as returnees, there was nobody following us to see what our needs are. I am struggling so much to get food to feed my family. If any of us falls sick, it is going to be very difficult to get treatment.
I am in the home of my family but I cannot figure out how to restart my life. I am thinking of planting crops but I still need to ask my kinfolks to provide me with some land to farm on.
If the government and NGOs can live up to their promises and provide us with assistance to restart our lives, then I would at least be able to start planning for the future.
If I had money, something like 100,000 South Sudan pounds (around $100), then I could go to the market and set up a stall selling tea. If I was given even more money, then I could start a restaurant.
I am also feeling uneasy because my children are seen as Sudanese. I know my people will not want to do anything bad to them, but there is always that feeling that you do not fully belong here.
I have not managed to make contact with my husband, and I am praying that nothing bad has happened to him. There was an opportunity to use a phone service here, but I missed the chance.
Part 3: Struggling to settle
‘I still don't have sustainable work’
I have enjoyed listening and hearing traditional things from the elders. I enjoyed the introduction people have been doing for me. They have told me stories of my family and my ancestral lineage. They were new to me and it gave me a sense of belonging.
The hospitality we found here was not what many people expected. We had been hearing about an internal war in South Sudan – one that predated the war in Sudan – but I have met people that have become my friends.
The first choice many people had when the fighting erupted in Khartoum was to cross to Chad or Egypt. People believed these countries would be safer than South Sudan. But since we arrived, we have not experienced war here.
I still don't have sustainable work, so I often go out and collect firewood in the forest. I then take the firewood to the local market in order to get money to buy soap and sugar for my children.
“I came here with three plastic sheets given to my children in Wedwiel, which we are using to sleep.”
I sometimes go to farms for casual work. I go and weed crops and get paid by the owners. But the farms are very far, a distance of five hours by foot, and I can't leave my children at home on their own every day.
Because things are proving tough, I decided to let my first born child, who is 17, go back to Wedwiel to live with cousins from his father’s side of the family. The little food organisations give my son is what we eat, but I still have to go to the bush and collect wild fruits and leaves to cook as broth.
I came here with three plastic sheets given to my children in Wedwiel, which we are using to sleep. But the nights are difficult: We sleep in the cold, and there are too many mosquitoes here.
None of my children have fallen sick since we arrived, but if it does happen it is going to be very difficult to treat them because there are no health facilities nearby. Access to health services is not easy here.
Life was much easier in Khartoum. I was working as a community drug distributor, and at a road construction company. My children were very healthy because they used to eat food with protein, but here we struggle to get any type of food.
Part 4: Returning to Wedwiel
‘I just hope the war ends’
I have returned to Wedwiel with all of my children. I had earlier sent back my son to collect food aid, and when I went to visit him recently I found that he was living in a nice shelter.
“I have so many plans – to open a restaurant or a market stall selling groundnuts and biscuits – but they are dying in my heart.”
A free school for the refugees has also been established in Wedwiel, and children are being taught in both Arabic and English. So I wanted to bring my children back so that they can be going to school.
My children were also not comfortable living in the village. They felt discriminated against as Arabs, and my youngest ones used to cry. Access to food and health services was also very difficult.
Still, I have been told to leave Wedwiel once again as I am not seen as a refugee. I have so many plans – to open a restaurant or a market stall selling groundnuts and biscuits – but they are dying in my heart.
Life is very difficult, and I just hope the war ends in Sudan so that I can go back with my children to their home. We did not decide to come here on our own – the war forced us to.
This report was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by UK aid.
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.