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Between Hope and Fear - refugees returning home to southern Sudan

Tens of thousands of Southern Sudanese who had been living as refugees in Uganda are returning home to an uncertain future.
(Neil Thomas/IRIN)

It’s been three years since a peace accord put an end to the civil war between north and south Sudan. The conflict, which began in 1983, displaced millions of civilians. Many fled to neighbouring Uganda. Now there’s a steady flow of refugees returning to Sudan.

At the Uganda-Sudan border crossing, Mark Otti and his wife Nancy, prepare for the final leg of their journey back to a home they fled 15 years ago. They’re travelling with their three children, none of whom have ever set foot in Sudan.

Nancy feeds the children before they set off on their two-day journey home; their last meal eaten as refugees.

Today, Mark is helping to serve lunch. But when he gets back to Sudan, he hopes to put his training as a nurse to good use.

Mark: “I am very happy because Sudan is my country of origin, where I was born and really I am very happy to be going back, because there is not any problem in Sudan, like war, as it was before - the peace agreement was signed in Naivasha. There is nothing wrong in Sudan, that’s why I’m coming back.”

When Mark and Nancy sought refuge in Uganda in 1993, they were hoping to find peace. Instead they found the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA – a brutal rebel group sworn to the overthrow of the Ugandan government and notorious for abducting children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves.

Operating from bases inside Sudan, the LRA was used as a proxy force by the Sudanese government in its war against southern rebels.

The LRA frequently attacked camps inside Uganda housing refugees and internally displaced civilians.

Now that the civil war is over in Sudan, its refugees are returning. Already, around 110,000 have made their way home from Uganda.

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Mark: “This is my wife Nancy Otti.”

Man: “Where are the rest?”

Mark: “They are here.”

Thousands of refugees are now returning every week.Despite their optimism, it will be a hard homecoming for most. Jobs are scarce even for qualified people like Mark and Nancy, who is a teacher by training.

UNHCR: “The returnees are coming back to very little. But after they come back things will improve. There was nothing when returnees left from here either. Now that they are coming back, once they begin to get their life going and the government starts to take charge of the situation things will improve it is starting from scratch.”

Photo: Neil Thomas/IRIN
"There is nothing like home" says the banner on this truck returning Southern Sudanese from Uganda

Mark and Nancy’s convoy makes slow but steady progress. Along the way, they meet friends and relatives they haven’t seen in years.

Nancy’s hopes are buoyed by the reunion.

Nancy: “I am seeing that here in Sudan things are okay, those who have already returned seem happy and well. My plan was to work as a teacher, as I trained in Uganda, so I hope to get a job. If not I will just have to pick up the hoe and develop my land.”

This is a land at a turning point in its history. Southern Sudan now has its own government and considerable income from oil reserves - but the benefits of this new-found wealth are yet to filter down to most rural communities.

Although some infrastructure is being repaired, many areas still suffer from a lack of even basic services like schools, roads and healthcare.

International donors recently met in Oslo and pledged a further 4.8 billion dollars to Sudan, some of which will be destined for communities like this.

But for now the returnees must rebuild their lives within the limits of their resources and the skill of their hands.

Flora Acia was displaced from her home by the war, but unlike Mark and Nancy she stayed in Sudan throughout the conflict.

Flora: “There is a big difference in Sudan now that the civil war has ended and the peace agreement was signed. Now we no longer have to hear the sound of gunshots everyday, and we can stay in our homes instead of always running to hide in the bush. But for total peace to be achieved in Sudan we need all rebel activities to stop.”

Photo: Jane Namurye/IRIN
Clementina Lujang, a single parent who just arrived from Rhino camp, northern Uganda, points to her plot of land in Yei, Southern Sudan, as her daughter Suzy looks on

Flora ekes out a living for herself and her children gathering grass and firewood.

Her husband died in 2004 in a fishing accident. Two months later, LRA rebels attacked her village looking for recruits and food, and abducted her two sons.

She hasn’t seen them since.

Now she lives in a small village with her two daughters. And although they feel safer now that the LRA is engaged in peace talks with the Ugandan government, the scars of the conflict are still fresh.

Flora: “Here people are still scared of the LRA, people don’t go beyond those hills over there, no more than five kilometres from the village, beyond those hills people are afraid of meeting the rebels.”

In January 2008, the threat of violence became a reality for these people when hundreds of armed men attacked their village. Houses and shops were looted and 40 people, including children, were abducted.

Such attacks may be rare now in south Sudan, but when they do happen people like 15-year-old Esta Poni pay the highest price.

Esta: “I was shot by the rebels and my husband was killed in front of me. I am now scared to leave the hospital. Maybe if I go home the rebels will return. When I leave here, I don’t know how I will stay at home.

“I don’t know whether I have escaped death or not. When I was shot I thought that was the end. I know I should be happy to be alive, but I am now just scared to be in Sudan. I thought it we would be safe coming back.”

Mark and Nancy’s journey to their home village Owynkibul is nearly over.

Photo: Jane Namurye/IRIN
Sudanese refugee children in Arua, northern Uganda, hope to return to a country free of child abuse

But there’s a last minute hitch as report arrives of an LRA attack on a nearby village. The convoy is delayed. Mark is disheartened.

Mark: “I don’t have anything in my hands to protect myself. I fear for my life… the security is not okay, so really I am not happy.

“I don’t know whether I will stay there in Owynkibul safely, not me alone, but all the refugees who have already returned to Owynkibul.”

Additional security is found and the convoy sets off. Finally the convoy reaches Owyinkibul.

The returnees are given a three-month supply of food and other essentials they need to start rebuilding their lives.

Mark: “I am excited to see my people around and to see my village. I have to at least make some huts for my family, then I stay with my family and push life.”


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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