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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
The long journey home
June 14, 2011
By Anne Richard
A group of women and a small boy stop for some rest and refreshment in the kitchen of a way station on their journey home to southern Sudan.
While visiting South Sudan, my colleagues Nelly and Muki from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) protection team brought me to Juba River Port on the banks of the White Nile. We were going to see where Sudanese, who had been living in Khartoum or elsewhere in the North of the country, were now returning to the South.
Families had traveled for days – two weeks to a month – on large ships down the Nile. Separate barges towed the large bundles that were piled high under the protection of tarps. In the bundles were all of their household possessions. Now they would spend nearly a week in Juba, getting sorted with the help of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) before moving on to their homes. The IRC was helping to identify those refugees who were vulnerable – mothers with children, the elderly, the disabled or others with special needs. Protection officers made sure they got meals and medical care.
A barge is piled high with some of the returning families' possessions. (Photo: Anne Richard/IRC)
About 300,000 Sudanese have made this trek since last October, and the UN refugee agency expects 100,000 more before the migration ends.
We visited some of these families at a way station and saw the dormitories where men slept apart from the women and children – for everyone’s safety. A group of women were in the communal kitchen, which had three big fires for cooking. On the day we visited, a group had completed their stay. Their possessions were loaded on a truck and the “returnees” climbed onto a bus to head home. The children and infants would be seeing their ancestral homes for the first time. Others had no homes in the South and were being directed to areas where they could start their lives over.
Sudanese returning to the South load their possessions onto a
truck for the final leg of their journey home. (Photo: Anne Richard/The IRC)
What awaits these hopeful people? The answer is not clear. Some come because they want to be free of the harassment and exploitation they’ve experienced in the North, where Southerners are treated as second-class citizens. Others are excited to participate in the founding of the world’s newest country.
The new republic will have the responsibility but not the wherewithal to deliver basic services to its people. Today most medical care is delivered by churches and non-governmental organizations (like the IRC), many areas suffer food scarcities (the influx of returnees may worsen this situation), there are struggles over water, and fuel is prohibitively expensive. There is a plan to reallocate land to returnees, but it is being carried out unevenly across the South.
This Sudanese baby, born in the North, may grow up in the new country of South Sudan (Photo: Anne Richard/The IRC)
And even as these families return to the South, others are running for their lives. Along the contested border areas that lie between North and South, forces of the North are pushing south in a bid to gain more territory before Sudan is split into two countries. Already 200,000 people have been displaced this year – some fleeing fighting in the contested border areas and others fleeing inter-tribal conflict, cattle raids and other dangers. As they flee they must avoid mined roads, local power struggles, and an abundance of small arms and other weapons as well as those who take advantage of chaotic situations to perpetrate violence against women.
As the driver starts the bus engine, the children are pressed up against the windows, curious about everything. I, too, am curious about their chances for a happy life now that they have nearly completed the long journey home. If these families are to thrive, they need peace.