Sudan’s wandering population homebound

Africa’s largest country has been at war with itself for nearly a half century, but as peace returns so are its people…

Conflict in Sudan began just before independence in 1956 and, after a pause from 1972 to 1983, exploded with a fresh fury.

It has been Africa's longest, costliest, and deadliest war with parties on all sides accused by amnesty groups of committing gross human rights abuses against civilians.

An estimated two million Sudanese have died, and 4.5 million have been internally displaced since 1983.

But now refugees are returning en masse as a comprehensive peace agreement formally ending more than two decades of civil war in Sudan comes into force.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says it is expecting a total of 140,000 Sudanese refugees from the neighbouring countries to be repatriated this month.

Hot on their heels is an estimated four million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – the largest group of its kind in the world - and another 350,000 refugees from neighbouring countries.

The figures are startling... and so is the situation they will face when they arrive.

The region needs assistance in every sector - roads, markets, schools, health centres, houses, agriculture and food security as well as education, sanitation, and water provision. And there is a cholera epidemic…

The village of Ikotos, which sits in Sudan's jungle-like Southern Equatoria state, is an epicentre for the disease, which is supplied essential medicines by London-based agency World Emergency Relief.

Twice previously the group’s project co-ordinator for Sudan, Matthew Langol, has been airlifted out soon after arriving when rebels ambushed aid convoys travelling behind him, blocking his way out.

“It’s very dangerous work,” he admits, “and no-one likes making the journey. But the disease comes in waves here, and no medicine would mean higher fatalities and a chain reaction of transmissions”.

It’s little wonder refugees are expressing doubt over security and social infrastructure in the Sudan they are supposed to return to. Basic social services are limited or non-existent.

Community leader, Tobiola Alberio, who works with the Ugandan All Nations Christian Care group in the Southern Equatoria region of the country, says: “Internally displaced refugees have moved, sometimes several times, sometimes just small distances, because of rebel violence and every time they settle, they must begin again with nothing.”

They are locked in a cycle of helplessness because Sudan’s Islamic government is ignoring the suffering of the south’s largely Christian population, he says, accusing officials in the Khartoum government of encouraging their eradication altogether “by funding rebel death squads”.

“It's why we live in the dark, in huts,” he says.

His fellow ‘black Africans’ living further out in the countryside have no clothes, schools, medicines or basic equipment, and live, according to Alberio, “like animals”.

The recently created government of southern Sudan, which is ultimately responsible for overseeing the return of the refugees, is made up of former Sudanese rebels who used to fight the Arab authorities in Khartoum.

Sudanese rebel forces took up arms in February 2003, accusing the government of discriminating against Darfur's black Africans in favour of Arabs.

Sudan’s Arab population in the north of the country is more likely to have clean, running water and electricity, as well as better access to education and health services.

It is a sign of progress for both the Arabs and the Christian south Sudanese that they are prepared to talk to one another openly for the first time in over 20 years, during our visit.

In a Truth and Reconciliation meeting taking place in the village centre, the chairman of the Lango community appeals to Arabs from Khartoum to understand that the Christian population of the south is not open to conversion to Islam and the adoption of Sharia law, whose penal code involves punishments such as amputations, floggings, stonings and executions.

“We have enough violence being threatened by rebels,” he says.

The rebel violence the Lango chairman and Alberio speak of is from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony.

They are known for kidnapping and brutalising young children, many of whom end up fighting for them.

The Ugandan group has traditionally operated in lawless areas of neighbouring southern Sudan, but is thought to have recently relocated to the Congo.

In February 2004, the rebels savaged an refugee camp at Barlonya, about 26 kilometres from Lira in northern Uganda killing about 190 people and injuring countless others, including Dario Achol, who was barely in his teens at the time. He escaped and fled to Sudan’s desert-like Lodwara area.

“They came in great numbers, looting and burning our homes,” he recalls.

“We fled for our lives and some of us came here to escape. The land was overgrown where the previous occupiers had left it – they had fled from government attacks - so we farmed it. But now we are worried the previous owners will return and reclaim it.”

There is no arbitrator in these parts in the event of a land dispute. Law is often in the eye of the aggrieved party and the penalty for murder is a bullet to the head: no judge, no jury.

Despite such hurdles, aid agencies are expressing optimism at the willingness of Sudanese refugees to return home.

"It is a great thing each time a group of refugees returns to south Sudan," said Fortunata Ngonyani, UNHCR's community services officer.

"It acts as an encouragement to others in the camps and gives them confidence in the Sudanese peace process and the voluntary repatriation programme," she added.

"It is our hope that information flowing from repatriated refugees will encourage more refugees to return home".

Many arrive clutching blankets, sleeping mats, plastic sheets, mosquito nets, jerry cans, kitchen sets, water buckets and soap – given by the UNHCR to help them restart their lives at home.

Regional and clan differences remain sources of tension and social strife in southern Sudan. Issues such as land allocation and livelihood opportunities also pose major challenges to sustainable return. Landmines and unexploded ordnance are omnipresent, and many feeder roads to be used by returning refugees and IDPs are still mined.

Many of the children in the IDP camps are orphaned – their parents killed in fighting or through attrition either by LRA violence or government backed militias.

Despite their losses, Sudanese children are remarkably resilient and many have plans for their lives above and beyond the opportunities apparently available to them.

Parentless Lucy Akwera, 13, who lives in Logware village walks 10 kilometres every day to attend school classes in Ikotos. A school house and church there have been funded by a number of Western churches that have established missions in the area.

“How else can I become a doctor?” she asks. “All I can do from here is study as hard as I can to get qualified.”

She says she was attracted to the role because of the need for medical help she sees everyday around her.

It is a remarkable dedication given her experience of being abducted by LRA rebels as a child, where she almost certainly would have grown up into a life as a sex slave in the north of the country after being sold to Arabs for money to buy arms.

She says she remembers nothing of the experience and has older captives who made a daring escape from the rebels to thank for taking her with them.

As the country’s population begins to swell, so will their interest over resources and how the country's wealth should be shared.

Southern Sudan is rich in oil and water, while the north is largely desert.

Egypt has a stake in the free flow of the Nile River through Sudan, while Western countries are keenly interested in Sudan's oil reserves, estimated at between 800 million and four billion barrels.

Mother and daughter, Leura and Aneta, in the Lodwara area look across the plains they have returned to after two years in a camp.

But instead of antelopes running its length there are large trucks collecting produce from a commercial plantation that has appeared during their absence.

“We have lived here for generations,” Leura explains, “but we have nothing to do with this [project] and it’s almost certain we will get nothing from it.”

Aneta, her daughter is more upbeat, suggesting that it might provide work for her and money for her family.

“There is no other way to provide for each other out here, so it looks like an opportunity,” she says.

“And if I can pay for my children to have an education, I will have succeeded as a parent,” she smiles.