Jackson Daw doesn’t like taking risks. But he’s about to put his family’s lives on the line. For the past two decades, they’ve lived in northern Sudan in camps for those displaced by Africa’s longest civil war.
He’s one of four million who fled the fighting… outcasts in the country they call their own… Africans from the south, in the Arab north. But now there’s peace, and Jackson wants to go home. The melons are a rare luxury, celebrating a big decision.
It’s better. That’s my village. I will go there. Even if it’s bad, I will go there. That’s where they cut my umbilical cord. That’s the land of my grandfather. I’ll stay there. It’s my country.
And so, Jackson Daw is about to lead his family on a journey south… a journey to be repeated by millions more over the coming years… a journey to a place where survival is anything but guaranteed.
This is a camp for Internally Displaced People, just outside Kosti. Kosti is the main Nile river port which serves Khartoum. With bitter irony, the five thousand southerners here name it “Ghoz-el-Salam” – The Sand Dune of Peace.
There’s no power, no phones, no water. Donkey carts plod to the river six kilometres away, shuttling supplies for the constantly thirsty community. When it’s dry, the dust grinds its way into everything. When it’s wet, the place becomes a bog. It’s the way most southerners live in camps across the north.
None of them want to be here. Almost all were fleeing fighting between the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, or SPLA, and forces from Khartoum. Jackson is typical.
There was war in my village. Civilians were considered not to have rights. That’s why the government robbed, killed and starved us. That’s why I came to the north. I’ve been here for ten years now.
But throughout that time, the southerners almost universally say, they’ve felt unwelcome. The Soba Erradi camp on the outskirts of Khartoum is one of the oldest squatter settlements around the capital.
The authorities have made it plain that they want the land back. But residents say they’re being driven out before they’re ready. According to one survey, some three million southerners want to return home at some point. But NGOs believe if children and their families are forced out before there is food and infrastructure to support them in the south, it’ll only provoke another crisis. The fragile peace so long in the making could easily unravel.
Already about half a million have returned spontaneously and we think that this will double this year because of the incentive for peace, so we are expecting a flood of returnees coming back, both refugees and IDPs, and unless we do something, the situation will be grim.
Those worries barely register with camp dwellers contemplating the long journey home. In fact for most, the south has a certain nostalgic dream-like quality to it. Sultan Thon – Jackson’s community leader – told us what its like.
Now that God has brought peace, he says, we will return to cultivate. If you have a fishing rod, you can fish. If your brother has a net, he’ll give you some fish. If you need timber for your house or grass for the roof, its all free from the forest. That’s why we’re going.
Jackson and his wife Theresa have only a child’s memories of the south. They left when they were just ten years old. Their children know nothing other than camp life. No one in the family has had a steady job for years. Just occasional labouring work.
Even an official with a pen can’t get a job, and nor can a driver. The only hope is to work as a soldier, and you still won’t be free. So its better to go back to my village. Life here is so hard.
So, Jackson’s family sing songs of home. Not nostalgic ones, but songs that remind them of the good times of the past. Songs that reassure them it’s the right time to go back.
I want to go back to our village. I need to rest from this hard work and these hard circumstances. I am not happy.
Jackson has been saving hard for months. Now he hopes there’s enough food and money to cover transport for his family group of 17. It’s time to pack everything. There’s a rumour that a cargo barge is due to leave Kosti soon.
It’s heading up the Nile past their old home village. So Jackson has hired a donkey cart to shift the load to the Kosti docks. The barges are notoriously dangerous for passengers, but it’s the only way they can travel with all their possessions. The cart heads for the river.
The docks are crowded with southerners waiting for a barge home, with more than 300 people here, there’s barely enough space for the new-comers. Jackson’s family squeezes in and settles down for what could be a very long wait. There is no scheduled service. Barges leave when there’s cargo and some families have been waiting for more than three weeks.
To help, NGO’s hand out sorghum, lentils, and oil.
Theresa shares the ration with their extended family. Apart from Jackson, Theresa and their three children, they have both their mothers, and nine other assorted aunts, cousins and children. The extra food cheers up everyone.
The camp settles down for another night. There’s a rumour the barge will be leaving tomorrow. Nobody’s certain, but everyone is hopeful.
By first light, the rumour is confirmed, and people queue their donkey carts to get the best places on the barge
Unusually, officials have decided to lay on a passenger barge for the trip. In the past travellers have had to sit on open decks. But Jackson is too late. The only space left is outside in the sun. The family piles their belongings on board. They’ll worry about how to survive the coming days later. But out here the conditions are exposed and filthy, and they’re deeply worried about how the children will manage.
It’s going to be difficult, Theresa says. Very difficult.
By the time the passengers have finished loading, it’s too late for the barge to leave, so everyone settles in once more. But the family is never unhappy for long… and for the first time, Jackson too allows himself to relax a little.
At last, the barge pulls away. The first stretch of the river is narrow and rocky, so the captain moves the convoy in sections to be assembled later. Meanwhile, the passengers organise themselves for the journey ahead. Jackson’s family is squeezed between the main engine and a cargo bay. They’ve got about three days on board. Those going to Juba have two weeks.
A few kilometres upstream in Renk, crewmen winch the barges together to form one giant five-boat convoy… Now, tightly bound with steel cable, there are three cargo barges, a passenger barge, and the engine, called the pusher – in all, nearly a thousand tonnes.
The barge continues its way south, at a stately ten kilometres an hour. The hours, then the days slip by…
The pusher is more than 20 years old. The captain dares not force the engines any faster than half its top speed for fear of blowing them up.
On board, life continues as best it can in the crowded conditions. Jackson’s family have finally found a relatively safe and sheltered corner while they about what’s ahead. But others too are planning their futures.
John Kong is a Nuer tribesman from a village near the Eastern border. He’s leading a family group of 23 people home, after fleeing first to Ethiopia and then Khartoum. They’re going back, because there is peace. But they’re still deeply worried.
I have nothing. No cows, and even the people on board have nothing – no cows, no food. We will depend on the little that will be given by the UN.
Cecilia Kiden David has a huge responsibility. When she was a child, an uncle took her from her village near Juba to Khartoum. Her uncle died several years ago, followed by her husband. Now, she’s bringing back 14 children… six of her own, six step children, and two nieces.
I was worried because if it happens that I die, it would be as if my children died. But if I die in Juba, I’ll die happy, because I’ll leave my children in their land. They won’t suffer like they did in Kosti. They couldn’t get to Juba without me.
For all the hope, all the optimism, South Sudan is no Garden of Eden. Every district apart from one fails the minimum standard for water supplies – a clean source for every 500 people…
For much of the region, every grain of food must be coaxed from the parched land by hand. While there are food surpluses in some areas, there are no sealed roads to take them to those without. As for schools, health services, and communications? It’s all missing. The UN knows it’s a vast job.
There’s no issue or activity that you could list that isn’t required. We need to be doing emergency food aid now because it’s required. We need to be doing the longer term interventions including building roads and infrastructure and improving people’s access to livelihoods through farming and fishing and pastoralism. All of that needs to be going on concurrently, and we have to do them all. We can’t just continue to feed these people with emergency food aid forever, but we need to be doing it until such time as they can create sustainable livelihoods.
The condition of the cattle at this auction says much about the capacity of the land to sustain millions more people. Yet early in 2005, southerners had some cause for hope though. At a conference in Oslo in April, donors pledged more than four and a half billion dollars to support all Sudan. But officials here say the promises aren’t being honoured
The international community is not coming forth with in terms of assisting in the returns; in terms of the commitments which they made in Oslo, they’re not coming forthwith.
And until I think the international community comes to terms with the reality of the situation, it will be difficult that we speak about large numbers of returns.
Jackson’s family is at last, close to home. They’ve arrived in Maluth, the river port near their village of Faludj. They’ve found a relative who’s taken them in for now. But there’s a problem. Their village no longer exists. It was destroyed in the fighting… burned to the ground. Their relatives can’t support them for long, but they can’t afford to move.
I’m worried because I don’t have a place. When I get my place, I’ll be happy. Jackson will work and we’ll stay. If he doesn’t find a job, he will search until he does.
But then Jackson has an idea.
As a child, he used to herd cattle around a village not far from Maluth, where some relatives lived. The village, called Mutt, is not on any useable road… just a bicycle track that takes about an hour.
The relatives are still there, but their lives are marginal at best.
Like all Dinka, their wealth is on the hoof. There’s no money in any bank… it’s here – the sum of all that the village owns. Jackson remembers a vast herd of about five thousand cattle. Now, there’s barely a hundred.
Jackson’s uncle explains their situation.
No food. In the past we used to have milk. But now people are suffering. There’s no sorghum either.
And the news keeps getting worse. The nearest water source is the river Nile, but even that is an hour’s walk each way. The 600 villagers are malnourished, poverty-stricken, and desperate. Jackson weighs a heavy choice.
It’s difficult. There’s no services, no schools, no food here. But this is where my relatives are. This is the closest I can get to my home. I must bring my family here.
It will take time for Jackson to finally bring his family to Mutt, but he is determined. They didn’t make the long journey from North to South, to stop so short of their goal. But it is also a very long way from what he’d hoped for.
The children sing of God. It’s all they have left after two decades of conflict and isolation. Like most of South Sudan, the village suffered much during the conflict. Without help, the peace could make things worse.
The signing of the CPA, the coming of peace was a huge step. It was a huge positive step. But it alone is not enough to sustain peace or reconciliation or anything else. We need to see the dividend of the peace beyond the fact that there’s no war. And I’m not sure that we’re necessarily seeing that yet.
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
Help make quality journalism about crises possible
The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.
Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story.
We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises. Become a member of The New Humanitarian today.