SOUTH SUDAN: World’s newest state offers little for thousands of returnees
Heading home at last – but many challenges lie ahead
WAU, – They have returned in their hundreds of thousands, by train, barge, bus and plane, often after decades of war-enforced absence; but coming home to what recently, and euphorically, became the world’s newest state, the Republic of South Sudan, is often the beginning of yet another chapter of struggle and destitution.
On one of the main roads in Wau, a railhead town held by Khartoum throughout the 1983-2005 civil war which devastated much of what was then called southern Sudan and which put two million people to flight, there is an old poster that reads: “Vote for separation to become first class citizens in your own country and say bye-bye to repression and marginalization.”
In January 2011, 98 percent of southerners complied with that injunction and in July a new flag was raised in the capital, Juba, as good riddance was finally bid to rule from distant Khartoum. Just as they had upon the 2005 signing of the comprehensive peace accord, long-absent southerners headed home in droves.
In August 2011 a passenger train arrived in Wau from Khartoum for the first time in years; it was packed with jubilant returnees eager to enjoy the fruits of long yearned-for peace and freedom.
For one of those passengers, 42-year-old auto mechanic Charles John, these fruits have yet to ripen. Since his arrival, he, his wife and six children have been living in a warehouse near the town’s railway station. While only a few dozen people lived in what is locally termed the “hangar” when IRIN visited in mid-March, the building would soon be jam-packed with passengers from another train that pulled into Wau a few days later.
“I decided to come back to my own country because I was a foreigner [in Khartoum] and faced discrimination. We were not welcomed; if we built a home we would be chased away after two or three years. This happened many times,” John explained.
“I was happy to come back. I expected a better life, with school for the children and a better chance of getting a job. But when I arrived, things turned out differently. I have no job, I am still in the hangar, the children are not in school and I am still waiting for my plot. I don’t know when I will get it,” he said.
Complicated plot allocation
A parcel of land is among the incentives for return promoted by South Sudan’s government. But the process is complicated, involving shuffling paperwork between the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, and the ministries of social affairs and of physical infrastructure. In the absence of clear national land policy guidelines, decisions are often ultimately made on an ad-hoc basis by local chiefs.
In some areas, returnees have been asked to prove their historical ties to a place before they are allocated land there. For those who may have been away for 30 years, providing such documentation is impossible.
Photo: Anthony Morland/IRIN
|Return interrupted: many who have come back to South Sudan have to wait weeks or months for land allocations
Such long absences have often been spent in urban environments such as Khartoum, while allocated plots tend to be in rural areas with little or no amenities or commercial opportunities, increasing the hardships of host communities in receiving areas.
According to Refugees International, government development plans treat “the return and reintegration of hundreds of thousands of people as a short-term issue, requiring only a food package and assistance with shelter. However, this assistance, valuable as it is, does not help the returnees to integrate into South Sudan’s social, political and economic life.”
An added hurdle is the low rates of literacy among returnees, 60 percent of whom are under the age of 18. Most of those who attended school while in Khartoum would have been taught in Arabic and so have a low level of the English which would help them get ahead on their return to South Sudan.
Moving back is particularly difficult for vulnerable returnees, such as war-widowed hangar resident Helena Elario Nur, who is blind. Like more than 23,000 people, she returned to South Sudan with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration. Some 360,000 people returned in 2011.
“I am just waiting for my plot. Life here is very difficult. I think Khartoum was better than this because I have just arrived and have not adapted to life here. In Khartoum, some churches helped me. When I got here I was given some rations by the World Food Programme, but they ran out a week ago. I try to get by selling a bit of dried okra, but it’s hard to find food for the children.”
Across South Sudan, poor harvests, rising food prices, the closure of the border with Sudan, and several armed conflicts have conspired to leave 4.7 million people in need of food aid this year.
Decades of civil war, which first erupted in the mid 1950s, prevented any significant development in the south, where only a minority has access to basic infrastructure such as rainproof roads, health centres and education.
And the new government’s capacity to meet the simplest needs of its eight million citizens has been drastically eroded by its January decision, amid a revenue-sharing row with Sudan, to shut down the flow of oil that accounted for 98 percent of its revenue. A series of austerity measures will not change the fact that the government will run out of money in June.
Photo: Andrew Green/IRIN
|Starting from scratch: returnees build a new home in the settlement of Alel Chok, near Wau
Another 120,000 southerners are expected to return voluntarily from Sudan in the coming months. And the exodus could be considerably larger: southerners living in Sudan, even those who were born there, were denied Sudanese citizenship when the country split in two, and were given a deadline of 8 April to “regularize” their status or leave.
Deal not yet implemented
Fears of such a mass movement southwards were partly assuaged earlier this month when both governments agreed in principle that each other’s citizens would enjoy rights of residence, employment, free movement and to buy and sell property.
But this deal has yet to be implemented, leaving open the possibility of vast numbers of southerners, up to 10,000 a day according to CARE, an NGO, descending on places like Renk - a border town and returnee way station in the northeast of South Sudan – at a time when rains and other logistical constraints would prevent onward transportation to their places of origin.
A few kilometers from Wau lies the new settlement of Alel Chock, which is populated by some of those who have been allocated land by the local authorities. Thanks to international aid agencies, it boasts water pumps, a health clinic and a school building, facilities that make its residents better off than 60 percent of South Sudan’s citizens.
But as new arrival Abdel Abdullah Afrangi, a 57-year-old chemical technician who left southern Sudan in 1968, told IRIN, even with such rare amenities, starting a new life here is daunting prospect.
“The problem we are facing is joblessness. Most of us are skilled workers: electricians, carpenters and the like. But we have no source of income. I am thinking of going somewhere to get a job, but I must prepare my plot, I can’t just abandon it,” he said.
“We want the government to look after our children, who are our future. But the school is not functioning properly and they are not well fed,” he added.
Despite the hardships of homecoming, almost all of the returnees who spoke to IRIN in Wau said they would remain in South Sudan.
“I have hope for the future, that things will get better,” said John.
“I won’t go back to Khartoum unless there is war.”