Magazine article New African

Two Million People Back Home! in What Has Been Described as the Biggest Peacetime Movement of People since World War II, South Sudan Has Received Nearly Two Million Returnees from the North since Its Independence in July 2011. Kate Eshelby Reports from Juba

Magazine article New African

Two Million People Back Home! in What Has Been Described as the Biggest Peacetime Movement of People since World War II, South Sudan Has Received Nearly Two Million Returnees from the North since Its Independence in July 2011. Kate Eshelby Reports from Juba

Article excerpt

IN THE BLAZE OF HARSH SUNLIGHT, rickety beds and suitcases are everywhere, scattered outside in the brain-numbing heat. Some cases lie open, piled with crumpled clothes. There are dusty TVs, a forlorn teddy bear, and people on mats under mosquito nets. But despite tough conditions, life goes on. A woman has just given birth, a family boils water for tea, and cooking and washing is being done.

This is a way-station on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan's capital, in the world's newest country. Over 1,300 returnees wait here, often for weeks, with all their worldly possessions, before moving on to other places where they will settle.

Nearly two million people have returned home to their motherland since South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, seceding from Sudan, its northern neighbour. "This is the biggest peacetime movement of population since World War II," Anne Bennett, who works for Radio Miraya, a local UN network, says.

Many of the returnees coming from Sudan arrive by bus or truck. Others use the train or barges down the Nile River. Travel in such an isolated country--larger than France with few roads, across Rat swampland that regularly floods--is no mean feat.

Some have never even been to South Sudan before, but they have chosen to return to their ancestral land despite the hardships of starting a new life in a war-ravaged country with no infrastructure.

In a peace deal, signed in 2005, Africa's longest civil war finally ended and Khartoum agreed to a six-year interim period, before holding a referendum when southerners could vote for their independence. An almost unanimous 99% chose to secede.

Since Britain and Egypt created Sudan's borders, the North and South have never felt joined in this vast country, once Africa's largest: they have a different culture, religion, and ethnicity. South Sudan is rich in resources--especially oil--but the North has always exploited the South and kept the region undeveloped.

It was, however, the attempt to impose Sharia law and refusing the South its right to self-determination that caused the rebel army, the SPLA, to split from the Sudan armed forces in 1983. Since the signing of the peace accord, people have returned from where they fled during the war. It is recorded that 1,917,200 have returned--with 135,000 arriving last year alone.

It has been a colossal undertaking--transporting people as well as all their possessions--with ongoing insecurity hindering travel and the few roads that exist completely impassable during the rainy season. The borders were closed between North and South because of ongoing disagreements flaring up again, leaving people stranded; some for over a year. People at the way-station describe the problems of illness and a lack of food while they travelled south, but explain why they came: "I lived in Khartoum for 20 years," Kate Moryal, one returnee, says. "Life there, in many ways, is better. It's hard here but this is my country."

Her friend, Rose Zakaria, says: "We face an unknown future. This is a new nation starting from scratch but we hope things will improve." She adds that she wants to help build the country and raise her children on their own land. The decision to move, however, is a giant undertaking. The journey is long and families often become separated.

The journeys by barge are especially arduous, with people living in cramped conditions for weeks, so disease easily spreads. And some fall overboard and drown. "Often female-headed households, or even child-headed, make this journey alone having lost their family through war," says Maria Ferrante from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. At least initially returnees are hosted by their relatives. "I was separated during the war from my parents. I didn't even know if they were still alive. But when I returned I Found them," Cecilia Kiden, one returnee, now living in Bunj town in Maban county, says jubilantly. …

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