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Culture shock for many southern returnees

Returnees from Khartoum registering in Abyei
Returnees from Khartoum registering in Abyei (Erich Ogoso/IRIN)

Sudanese are returning from the north of the country to their homeland in the south or the border region of Abyei in growing numbers in the run-up to key referendums on 9 January, but many are struggling to adapt to an impoverished, war-ravaged environment.

“Setting up a new home is not easy,” one resident of Abyei, a contested region that straddles the north-south border, told IRIN.

“Many returnees are facing a tough time after decades in a different environment. Some of the younger ones have moved from their new villages back to nearby towns and even to Khartoum.”

The Southern Sudanese government launched an accelerated repatriation drive in October, with the aim of returning thousands in time for the January referendums on the future of the south and the status of Abyei. The referendums are stipulated in the 2005 peace agreement that ended conflict between the north and south.

Unity State, which is so far the largest recipient, had received more than 16,000 by 16 November. Last week, 2,150 arrived in Abyei, marking the start of the organized return of an estimated 35,600 to that area.

"In many cases, they have sold everything that they had in the north and are coming back with what they can carry," said Lise Grande, UN deputy resident and humanitarian coordinator for Southern Sudan. "The level of morale and enthusiasm is very high - they are coming back to take part in the referendum - but the reality of reintegration into many of these undeveloped rural areas is going to be tough for the families.

"In some cases, it is a huge adjustment. There is a whole generation of southerners who were born and raised in the north, mostly in urban settings. Now the vast majority are going to rural areas that have suffered from decades of marginalization and underdevelopment."

There are about 250,000 southerners in the north who have registered to come back. While nobody knows the exact number that will actually make the journey, the humanitarian community expects up to 150,000 before the 9 January referendum in the south. That is a challenge.

"What has taken the humanitarian community by some surprise is the scale of the returns," Grande told IRIN. "This was a programme that we had not planned for in advance, but we are scrambling to respond to the emergency needs of these people."

A senior Sudanese official said the government was trying to manage high expectations. “Returnees who were in camps have been receiving help,” Jok Madut Jok, under-secretary in the Southern Sudanese ministry of culture and heritage, said. “Now they come back and get shocked by what they find. Sometimes even their land has been taken away.”

Limited funding from the government of Southern Sudan, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has "hampered planning and implementation, and generated concerns regarding protection and reintegration support".


In Abyei, government officials who received the returnees slaughtered a bull to mark the occasion. Later, some of them were driven to various villages to start a new life, but were left staying in the open and sheltering from the heat under the trucks that brought them.

Lise Grande, Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Sudan

Erich Ogoso/IRIN
Lise Grande, Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Sudan
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Culture shock for many southern returnees
Lise Grande, Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Sudan

Photo: Erich Ogoso/IRIN
Lise Grande, the UN's Deputy Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Southern Sudan

“The returnee process is being organized by the Abyei area administration and the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC),” Margherita Coco, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) sub-office in Abyei, told IRIN. “The humanitarian community decided that once they arrive, a certain level of support would be offered. WFP provides a three-month reintegration ration, given monthly.”

The Abyei administration has registered 35,600 people who are interested in returning home, including 23,000 in Khartoum. There have also been spontaneous returns, many of whom have now settled. Their `tukuls’ [traditional huts] and make-shift shelters dot the roadside from Agok to Abyei. By the homesteads, stand new lush sorghum fields that are blooming in Abyei's fertile soils.


Observers fear the situation to which the returnees have come, remains precarious. "Up to 80 percent of South Sudan’s population have been displaced at least once over the previous 15 years and the challenge this presents to a region recovering from decades of civil war, and whose political status hangs in the balance, cannot be exaggerated," Lucy Hovil, senior researcher at International Refugee Rights Initiative, said in a paper.

The returnees are expected to drop their legal status as refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs), so they can enjoy the protection of the local authorities. But while Southern Sudan might vote for secession in the referendum, it was unclear whether that would lead to greater stability, or conflict.

"In addition to tensions between returnees and those who stayed, widespread lack of civilian protection, weak police capacity, and incomplete civilian disarmament processes constitute a context that is highly precarious," Hovil noted.

"This uncertainty has put the repatriation into something of a catch-22 situation... If people do not return home then they will not be part of the political changes that are (hopefully) creating potential for durable peace, and yet by returning home into a context of chronic uncertainty people risk jeopardizing their security should the situation deteriorate once more," Hovil’s report said.

Few social services

Planning for the returns has been problematic. In Unity State, three schools ended up hosting 2,700 returnees, disrupting classes, after floods cut off roads through which the returnees were to pass. Other returnees have found themselves stranded in unfamiliar settings with limited job prospects. One such returnee who trekked from Khartoum to Bentiu, Unity State, with his family failed to find food for them.

“I see the returns as the biggest challenge for Southern Sudan at the moment,” a Juba-based observer, who requested anonymity, told IRIN. "This is especially because of the absence of basic social services to support them. Yet the movement will continue until the referendum.”

''Setting up a new home is not easy''

In Juba, some of the returnees had to sleep in the open as they awaited assistance from the government, local media reported. One returnee said they had spent 17 days on a barge on the River Nile, and were living in the open without food, soap and cash. Stans Yatta, SSRRC commissioner for Central Equatoria State, said they were assessing their needs before relocating them to places of their choice.

The biggest problems, sources said, have been schools and health care. School education is free in northern Sudan as is health care. Many returnees to the south are surprised because the school and health systems are dilapidated.

"Our plan was that all would come and proceed to their own counties, and the county commissioners would then resettle their respective returnees," Unity State Minister of Information and Communication Gideon Gatpan Thoar told the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).

Identified needs in Unity - both among those who had returned to their final destinations and for the over 6,500 people stranded in Bentiu due to the impassibility of roads - are high, and range from immediate food and shelter needs, access to land, and reintegration and livelihoods assistance.

"While initial assessments indicate no forced relocation or discrimination patterns, the process has generated strong protection concerns centred on inadequate security during transit, lack of access to secured shelter in reception areas, the high percentage of women and children among returnees, risks of family separation, and the exposure of vulnerable groups to abuse," OCHA said.

More to come

Southern Sudanese authorities estimate there are 1.5 million southerners in the north. Given the difficulties involved, the authorities are looking at a phased approach, where some keep coming throughout 2011.

“I was in Bentiu and could see the people coming with everything - beds, chairs and so on,” said Giovanni Bosco, head of OCHA in Southern Sudan. “This is not a short- but a long-term return, so we are trying to support their smooth transition so they do not become IDPs.”

Most are being taken to their places of final destination, but some got stranded due to flooding in Aweil, Northern Bahr al-Ghazal. Another 20-25,000 are also on the move from Darfur to Western and Northern Bahr al-Ghazal.

Data compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the SSRRC, shows that two million displaced people have returned to the south since 2005, out of four million who were displaced by 20 years of war between the north and south.

According to Gerard Waite, head of the IOM office in Southern Sudan, far greater numbers are expected this year because of elections and the referendum. Sixty percent of the returnee families are headed by single women, while 60 percent of all returnees are under 18. To reach the south, 75 percent came by bus or truck, 15 percent walked, while 6 percent used boats and 3 percent came by air.

“I have spoken to the returnees and they say some more people are selling property to return,” Giovanni told IRIN. “There will be thousands more.”


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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