Some of Cairo's South Sudanese refugee population were hoping to return home. New hostilities between Sudan and South Sudan leave refugees disappointed and doubtful.
The Dinka language church service at Cairo's All Saints' Cathedral draws about thirty people of all ages each week. It's a mix of sermon, recitation and music that usually takes more than two hours.
Churches are at the center of social life for South Sudanese refugees in Cairo. On a recent Friday, dozens came as usual to All Saints' Cathedral, but not for the weekly service.
They gathered in the courtyard outside instead to talk about the recent outbreak of hostilities between Sudan and South Sudan.
22 year old Kot Maker remembers a childhood shattered by years of fighting. “The northerners want to enforce war against us and we don't want war again because we've suffered a lot,” he said.
Maker studies law at Cairo's Ain Shams University, but originally comes from Yirol in central South Sudan. Many of his countrymen ended up in Cairo, too.
Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese fled during Sudan's brutal civil war. The war lasted more than twenty years and cost an estimated 2 million lives.
Those who received asylum or refugee status made their homes in poor South Sudanese enclaves. They have grappled with racial discrimination and a precarious legal status that makes it impossible for many to find gainful employment in Cairo.
A peace agreement ended the war in 2005. By 2011, southerners voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to break apart from Sudan and form their own nation, South Sudan.
For the first time in decades, many South Sudanese made concrete plans to return home. Now, they're not so sure because of the recent violence.
“Definitely, I was planning to go back to Sudan, maybe in two months time, to go back, but after I heard there is a fighting between the north and South Sudan, it changed my mind and it led me to think double twice about what I can do next,” said James Madit, who has lived in Cairo for a decade.
While some are delaying their plans to return to South Sudan, others say they'll go back, but in a different capacity than originally planned.
George Maural Chiman left his hometown of Rumbek at the age of five. For thirty five years Chiman lived as a refugee in Ethiopia, Kenya, and now, Egypt. He plans to return home, but he will quit his current profession as an aid worker for a church group. Chiman now expects to join the South Sudanese army.
“Defending the nation, it is a cause for all citizens of South Sudan,” he said.
Sudan and South Sudan are plagued by decades of mistrust. Even before the civil war, religious, racial, and cultural intolerance pervaded Sudanese society.
Last month, Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir infuriated South Sudanese when he referred dismissively to South Sudan's leaders as “insects.” Many of the leaders had fought in the war on the side of the south. The term “insects” also bore troubling echoes of genocidal language used in Rwanda.
"Bashir is calling that we are insects, we are not people,” said Kot Maker. “We need to think about it and we need the international community to condemn this criminal guy.”
A fierce struggle over Sudanese oil reserves has exacerbated the historic animosity. 75 percent of Sudan's oil lay in the south. When South Sudan split from the north, it took the oil with it. More reserves lie along a disputed border.
The developments of the past several weeks have sparked nationalist fervor in both Sudan and South Sudan. Many who remember the civil war say they wish the two nations would employ diplomacy rather than resorting to fighting.
Boyenyo Ezekial works as an accountant at the South Sudan embassy in Cairo. She would like to return home, but her husband is the minister at All Saints' Cathedral. She and her three young children are committed to remain in Egypt until every parishioner has returned to the South.
In a small, tidy home whose walls are decorated with family photos and pictures of Jesus, she switches fluidly between shushing her children and expressing grave disappointment that South Sudan's future is threatened by war.
“I was thinking that if we start well, we will really be the best country in the world,” said Ezekial. “We would see the experience, the past experience of the nations that have started or that have had their independence maybe sixty years or forty years back and I was sure we wouldn't fall into the same mistakes they fall into.”
Really, she says, she expected better than this.
Author: Noel King/ kms
Editor: Anke Rasper