Hundreds of displaced Sudanese Dinka Bor people are returning from Equatoria region to Jonglei State, but many are scared that resettling on land they last saw 15 years ago will be a daunting task.
"I have wanted to go back home for three years now, but I have nobody [there] that I know," Debora Aker said aboard a barge hired to take the returnees down the muddy River Nile. "I am afraid how I will establish myself, build a shelter and cultivate in time for the rains."
Saying she would rather stay in or near Bor town than in her original village, Aker hoped a three-month food supply promised by aid agencies would help her establish herself. "Life is getting harder for me now," the 50-year-old added.
Unlike Aker, 24-year-old Michael Dut’s worry was to find a job in Bor County. "If I had the power I would not go to the cattle camp [traditional semi-nomadic herding camps]; life is about schooling," he said, referring to the fact that he spent some of his time in Equatoria region attending school. "I want to see my area, but because of the fighting, I don't think there will be any development. If I do not find a job there, I will come back to Juba [capital of southern Sudan]," he told IRIN.
Another returnee, Dhieu Akoi, 20, felt he should have stayed in Juba instead. "Juba is the best place to be, there are even many secondary schools there," he said, as the barge rocked on the water. "Of course I am frightened about what I will find." Like Dut, he hoped to find a job in Bor town. However, he would first go back to his village to collect food and non-food items from non-governmental organisations that support returnees in Bor County.
|If I do not find a job there, I will come back to Juba|
They were among hundreds of returnees being supported by the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Sudanese authorities and other partners under a multi-agency programme to get the Dinka Bor back home.
They travelled for two days from 2 February, on the second returnee trip this year. The first, in January, returned 225 Dinka Bors and another is planned for 300 people in February.
Most of the Dinka on the barge fled their homes after the Bor massacre in 1991 when Amnesty International estimates 2,000 lives were lost. The massacre occurred after a faction led by Nuer leader, Riek Machar, who is now the southern government's Vice-President, defected from the southern Sudan Peoples Liberation Army. In ensuing battles, Machar's troops raided the Bor area, forcing thousands of civilians to flee south to Equatoria region.
"My brother died, my husband died. Many others died of hunger when they ran away," Aker, who still vividly remembers the events, said.
According to the IOM, the barge will rotate between Juba and Bor County until all the 10,000 internally displaced Dinka Bor people living in Equatoria region of southern Sudan are back in Jonglei State. The returns are part of a wider national effort to encourage displaced people to return home.
"We are planning to assist 605,000 returnees this year, both IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees," said Evereste Karambizi of the UN 'Triple R' (return, reintegration and reconstruction) coordination body.
Using projections from 2006, Triple R also estimates there will be 305,000 'spontaneous' returns - returnees using their own means. These will receive assistance in the form of UN-supported way stations along the way and the three-month food package at their final destination.
|The Dinka Bor|
|* A sub-group of the Sudanese Dinka community – the largest single grouping in southern Sudan
* The culture of this pastoralist community originally from Bor County, Jonglei State of Southern Sudan, is so centred on cattle that it is the medium of exchange in marriage, payment of debts and for sacrifice on major occasions and rites. Most important is the cattle camp where all social activities and behaviour are established
* Politically active since the Anyanya revolution of the 1950s when southerners rebelled against northern domination. Most prominent Dinka Bor politician was the late John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A)
* An estimated 2,000 were killed in 1991 when the current southern Sudanese Vice-President, Riek Machar, led a splinter SPLM/A group to raid the Bor area. Thousands of civilians displaced
* Thousands more displaced in 1994 to Maridi County, which was inhabited by agriculturalists. Consequently embroiled in conflicts over natural resources with their hosts.
See Dinka Community profile on Gurtong Peace Trust
UN agencies and the IOM will be supporting government efforts to take 150,000 people from Khartoum and surrounding areas to the south (including some to the northern transitional areas, between north and south).
Another 13,000 are to be given direct assistance and returned from war-torn Darfur to Northern Bahr el Ghazal State; while 10,000 will move from Western Bahr el Ghazal to Warrap State to add to the 10,000 displaced in Equatoria, who will be helped to return to Bor and the rest of Jonglei.
David Gressley, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for southern Sudan, said the plans were feasible - several important roads will be newly usable in 2007, and the return process will have US$150 million at its disposal.
"From the beginning we knew people wanted to come home, and we've been gearing up to help," he explained. "This means providing registration services, information about the place of return, vaccinations, way stations, non-food items and food for the returnees."
Simon Kun, head of the government of southern Sudan's humanitarian wing, the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, said the return process would be much better organised this year.
In 2006, IOM largely targeted spontaneous returnees needing assistance during their journey.
Kun is frank about the leading reason for the huge increase in efforts to bring people home to the south - the national census planned for November 2007, which is expected to have a significant impact on expectations and planning for national elections in 2009.
"We are bringing people back for the census; if we had the resources we would increase the number," said Kun. He cited poverty, and political and religious pressures on the estimated two million southerners in Khartoum, as good reasons to increase efforts to bring them back south.
However, while southern politicians do not underestimate the importance of getting numbers back in time for the census, UN authorities insist they are not being 'pressured' by the census.
"The pressure is twofold," explained Louis Hoffman, head of IOM in southern Sudan. "The bigger pressure is not the census and the government of southern Sudan, but that a large number of people want to come back. And people are coming."
A multi-agency survey of the intentions of the displaced in northern Sudan in 2005 showed that 67 percent said they would return to the south and transitional areas, 22 percent would remain in the north and 11 percent were undecided.
While the returns are expected to pick up, leaders in southern Sudan are concerned that the returnees are unhappy to go back to a rural life, preferring instead the lure of towns such as Juba.
"Last year, we brought back 3,000 people ourselves," Nyandeng Malek, deputy governor of Warrap State, told a January conference of southern governors in Juba. "We provided transport but about 2,000 of these people walked back to Khartoum. Those who remained are the most miserable you can imagine."
Some of the returnees, he added, were collecting around urban areas in Warrap because there were some social services.
"Money should be spent on services and not on transporting people; they will be attracted back," he added. "Without services, people will get discouraged [from returning]. We may lose twice; people for the census and the money."
But the pull to urban areas is one that politicians at state as well as central levels are trying to discourage.
"We need to encourage people to come back because we are going to have our census and to participate in development. Our policy is to encourage people to stay in the rural areas," explained the Commissioner for Juba County, Peter Jerkins Jaden.
While he agreed that returnees would be attracted to Juba because of a lack of services elsewhere in his county, Jaden insisted that the southern Sudanese motto to 'take the towns to the people' in terms of services was one he would stand by.
Whether southern Sudan is ready to receive the thousands of assisted returnees or not, time is running out for safe travel this year. Both Kun and Hoffman concur that time has been lost because the dry season is already into its third month. Those arriving during or after the rains will miss planting time.
"There is the practical factor of the seasons to bear in mind here," said Hoffman. "Really we only have a four-month window."
|Without services, people will get discouraged [from returning]. We may lose twice; people for the census and the money|
While the rains may affect operations, the Minister for Humanitarian Affairs, Kosti Manibe, insisted in January that the government would assist returnees even during the rains "or else we will not get enough. This is a sacrifice people will have to make if they want to be counted in the census," said Kosti.
A humanitarian official who preferred to remain anonymous said none of the counties in southern Sudan was up to minimal international standards in terms of social services - in education, water or health services, and would not be in the near- or medium-term. For example, it could take up to 15 years to drill the estimated 20,000 boreholes needed in southern Sudan, in the absence of other water supply options.
On the barge, 300 Dinka Bor returnees whiled away the time, often bursting into religious song. A woman who had only been away from Bor County for two years spat into the slow-moving River Nile as she described her home. "There is nothing there," she said.