As international mediation to ease friction between Sudan and South Sudan continues, thousands of South Sudanese are being airlifted to an independent homeland.
In a temporary camp on the outskirts of Juba, the South Sudanese capital, Betty Foni stirred a heaped tablespoon of sugar into a small glass of tea. She had just returned from Sudan and will live in this camp until the government provides her with a home. But she's wasted no time in starting up a business to support herself.
“I prefer to stay here rather than in Khartoum, because the situation in South Sudan is better than the situation in Khartoum,” she said.
Foni is one of more than 6,000 southerners to be airlifted out of Kosti, a riverside town in Sudan's White Nile state. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) plans to airlift another 6,000 to Juba.
The southerners began arriving in Kosti a year ago, just before South Sudan declared independence. They were hoping for transportation on barges that have been ferrying returnees on a weeks-long voyage down the Nile to Juba. But the South Sudan government and IOM have been unable to keep up with the number of returnees, and 12,000 remained trapped in Kosti.
As tensions between Sudan and South Sudan heightened, bringing the countries to the brink of all out war last month, the returnees became ever more vulnerable.
“The governor of White Nile state issued an ultimatum a couple of weeks ago that all UN agencies, international NGOs and returnees were to vacate the area,” said IOM's Samantha Donkin.
Unable to move such a large amount of people by barge, IOM scrambled to organize the airlift, while government and aid agency officials prepared temporary accommodation.
"It's good to come back"
Once they arrive in Juba, the returnees are taken by bus to one of two sites. At an unused teacher training college on the outskirts of Juba, a temporary town has sprung up with families living in tents and aid agencies providing health care and food.
Rosa Adoni said she went to Khartoum in 1987 during the middle of the civil war. “I went there because of the war that was going on, and now the war has stopped it's good to come back and join my family again,” she said.
But she acknowledged that life in her newly independent homeland would not be ideal. “Compared to the situation in Kosti, things are more expensive here. That's my main worry,” said Adoni as she spread out edible leaves on mats on the ground to dry.
Prices of food, fuel and other goods have indeed spiked in the past couple of months since South Sudan halted oil production during a dispute with Sudan over how much it should pay to use pipelines and processing facilities in the north. South Sudan said the shutdown was a measure of last resort because Sudan was stealing its oil. The move cost the government 98 percent of its revenue and deprived the economy of foreign exchange, leading to inflation and the devaluation of the South Sudanese pound.
Finding land is a challenge
IOM's Donkin said finding “sustainable sources of income” is a major challenge for returnees.
Adoni said she would start growing produce to sell in the market once the government provides her with a plot of land in her hometown of Torit, the capital of Eastern Equatoria state.
“Bring vehicles and take us to the place we are going to stay, because we are going to run our business there,” she said.
But Donkin said finding land for the returnees is challenging because state governments sometimes need to purchase it from local communities. In other cases, land vacated by people who went north has been occupied by neighbors, leading to land disputes. It could be a year before returnees are provided with land in their home areas, she said.
The UN says 375,000 southerners have returned since 2010, while as many as 700,000 remain in Sudan. They face an uncertain future as the Khartoum government has so far refused to sign an agreement that would give them rights including the ability to work and own property. Instead, southerners say they are suffering increasing harassment from the authorities.
“It has not been communicated very clearly to the South Sudanese remaining in Sudan what exactly they need to do to go about remaining in Sudan legally, and whether or not they're actually given that option,” Donkin said. “A large percentage of that group, if given the opportunity, would elect to remain in Sudan.”
Author: Jared Ferrie / mc
Editor: Susan Houlton