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Refugees reluctant to repatriate to southern Sudan, UN agency says

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Thousands of Sudanese refugees living in camps in northern Uganda are reluctant to consider repatriation for a variety of reasons, including the lack of facilities in southern Sudan, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, told IRIN on Tuesday.

The agency reported that the refugees felt the landmark peace agreement signed in December 2004 in Nairobi, Kenya, was not inclusive of all Sudanese groups.

"When the agreement was signed, the initial reaction was that of joy among the refugees. But eventually they started raising some concerns that they were not catered for in the agreement," Roberta Russo, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Kampala, said. "They are eager to go back, but they are considering their political situation and position in southern Sudan."

UNHCR was trying to establish the refugees' view on the agreement between the Khartoum government and the southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). "We wanted to find out what their intentions were after the signing of the agreement," Russo said.

The landmark peace deal between the Sudanese government and the SPLA set the stage for an eight-year process to halt the 20-year civil war - Africa's longest - between Arabs in the north and the Christians and animists in the south, which has claimed over a million lives.

Russo said many refugees raised the lack of the infrastructure in southern Sudan as a major concern, especially health facilities and schools for their children. "They told us that there were no facilities in the region, and they were not yet sure about their security," she commented. "Some have made some fact-finding missions to southern Sudan - they cross over to go and check how the situation is and return to the settlements."

An estimated 200,000 registered Sudanese refugees are housed in southwestern and western Uganda. However, UNHCR says an estimated 40,000 others who are not registered with the agency have been living in Ugandan border towns, while others are in the capital, Kampala.

Russo noted that many of the refugees were people of different ethnic backgrounds - neither SPLA sympathisers nor Dinkas, the ethnic community from which the SPLA gets its core support.

"Generally, they have some concerns," she said. "They are concerned that they are marginalized within the political opposition and the SPLA. They are thinking about their part in the peace dialogue; they are also thinking about the situation on the ground, like the infrastructure, their interaction with the opposition and the security situation there."

The refugees were also fearful that many fields in southern Sudan were still infested with landmines and a programme to de-mine the region would reassure them.

In Uganda, according to UNHCR, the refugees were well settled and lived in better material and security conditions than others elsewhere in Africa, and this was also why they were reluctant to leave and face the unknown conditions of southern Sudan.

However, all is not rosy for the Sudanese refugees in Uganda: they have been attacked several times by Ugandan rebels of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), who at one time claimed their settlements were being used by the SPLA as recruitment grounds.

In early 2004 the LRA launched 31 raids on UNHCR refugee settlements, displacing some 32,000 Sudanese refugees from the southern Zoka Forest Belt in northwestern Adjumani District.

The worst LRA attack was in August 2002, on Achol-pii refugee camp in Pader District, when the rebels killed more than 60 people, and the more than 24,000 Sudanese refugees there dispersed into the bush, fearing relocation to a camp further inland.

During this attack, the LRA took four aid workers from the International Rescue Committee hostage, but later released them.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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