Chaos and hope as Sudanese return

Posted in Africa | 30-Sep-05 | Source: Mail & Guardian Online

Returning Sudanese walk through Akuem village in southern Sudan.
The Nile has witnessed more centuries of human eccentricity than any of the world's great rivers, but what it is now experiencing must rank high in its annals of misery. Hundreds of people laden with bags, bedding and bicycles wait disconsolately on wharves. Under the unremitting sun, anxious passengers crowd the flat decks of rickety barges meant only for cargo. Narrow launches are filled to the gunnels with sweating women and children on a precarious journey to places some have never seen.

Despite the hardship, this is part of the "peace dividend" from Africa's longest civil war. With a deal agreed between the largely Arab north and the southern rebel group, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, hundreds of thousands of the four million who fled the fighting have started the dangerous journey back.

Not all are going "home". More than two decades of conflict have produced a generation who were not born when their parents fled or are too young to remember anything except life in overcrowded camps. UN officials expect 580 000 to move between now and March in the start of what could be the world's biggest return of displaced people. They are going to one of Africa's poorest regions, where war has destroyed much of what was only a flimsy peacetime infrastructure of schools and health clinics.

Adding to the looming crisis is the so-called "Darfur distraction", the fact that the main donor governments have switched attention to the victims of Sudan's most recent war.

Overseeing a mound of suitcases and sacks filled with clothes, John Gideon helped his wife and six children clamber out of a launch at Malakal this week after an overnight journey from Melut. It was the latest ordeal on a 1 440km trek which included three different minibuses from Khartoum and will continue on a barge to his home town of Juba. Her arms swollen with mosquito bites, his wife dipped a bowl into the Nile, soaped and rinsed her children, and dressed them in clean outfits on the quayside. The family had to sell some of their bedding and furniture to raise the $440 needed for their fares.

Like half the war's displaced people, Gideon escaped to Khartoum, where those from the south were herded into sprawling camps which the Arab authorities periodically cleared out, forcing people further into the desert, sometimes at gunpoint.

This year's peace deal allowed people to think seriously of returning to the south at last, but for many the trigger to pack up was an outbreak of violence after a helicopter crash in August killed John Garang, the SPLM's veteran leader. At least 200 people died and tensions have not abated.

"They burned the barber's shop I owned. I can't work there any longer," said Mr Gideon. "Life will be better than in the north. There we had to pay rent. In the south we will have our own place," his wife added.

Their journey so far has been without violence, but others are not so lucky. On the wharf at Kosti where people sometimes wait for three weeks for a place on a barge, a woman breastfeeding a child said soldiers often harassed women at night.

At N'bal, a remote area in the Nuba mountains, where up to 1 000 displaced people returned this week, Siham Alamba recounted how armed men in government uniforms and balaclavas had ambushed the lorry she was on. Several passengers were injured in shooting, while she and her 15 year-old son, who had money from his stepfather to pay for his schooling, were robbed along with the others.

"There were about 50 people on the truck with 16 small children. Once we got there we had to finish our journey with a 12-hour walk," she said.

The UN office for humanitarian affairs already has monitors to check the flow of people. It is planning to set up "way-stations" along the route to provide food and one night's shelter. It is also assembling a team of protection officers to work with the police. But it is waiting until at least next autumn before encouraging the displaced to return. Recognising the huge lack of schools, healthcare and food in the south, it is urging caution while promising the SPLM, now the official government there, that it will "assist spontaneous returns".

"If people come too fast, you will have problems," Dennis McNamara, the head of the UN's internal displacement division, warned SPLM officials on a visit to the south this week. "You will push the slums of Khartoum to become the slums of the south. We have to build up basic services or otherwise we may have an explosive situation. People will be very angry."

The SPLM has a dilemma. Reasons of pride make it want to see southerners return to help build its new state. It persuaded the north to give the south a share in Sudan's national government and oil wealth, or allow a referendum on secession in a few years' time. But senior officials recognise the south's severe shortages and the fact that, in Khartoum, in spite of discrimination by many local Arabs, most children in the camps go to school and many parents work.

"Conditions in the north, although pathetic compared to what others have in the north, are better than the south," said Riek Machar, the south's new Vice-President "The displaced expect schools, health services and so on. We're not encouraging them to come in one go."

Sudan's Arab leaders are also not pushing the displaced to return. With a tinge of glee, Abdel Haleem Ismail al Mudafie, Khartoum's governor, told reporters: "I have a strong belief many of these people will not go back south. They've never milked a cow. They don't own a goat. I told the UN three months ago, 'I'm dead sure that if you come in a year's time, few will have gone'."

The UN is taking no chances. Tens of thousands are already on the move, and unless pledges of international aid are soon delivered, this will be yet another crisis foretold but not forestalled.

Troubled history
Sudan was a British colony from 1898 to 1956. There has been a north-south civil war since independence. Fighting stopped in 1972 and resumed in 1983 when the north tried to impose Islamic sharia law on the south. An estimated 1,5-million have died in Africa's longest civil war, which is quite separate from the conflict in Darfur. A peace accord means hundreds of thousands of the four million who fled are returning home. - Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005