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Refugees Returning to Southern Sudan Face Hardship

The 21-year-old war between the Sudanese government and southern Sudan's main rebel group displaced millions of people. Following the signing of a peace agreement in January, people are starting to return to their homes. Cathy Majtenyi recently visited the southern Sudanese town of Rumbek, where returnees face many problems as they resettle.

Near the outskirts of Rumbek, Atyang Dut lives in a small, makeshift shack. The walls are made of palm leaves hanging from horizontal poles, the roof is constructed from branches and twigs.

Ms. Dut has been living here on the razor's edge of survival for almost a year, desperately searching for family members separated during the war.

The mother of three says she traveled from Rumbek to another southern Sudanese town called Wau farther north, and stayed there because of fighting. She returned to Rumbek after the war to be reunited with her family, only to find that her husband and other relatives had been killed, and her children had disappeared.

Frightened and lonely, Ms. Dut continues to search for her family, living on meager handouts.

Almost 1000 others who returned to Rumbek once the fighting stopped are in a similar situation, living in crowded camps of shelters that flood when it rains, searching for missing family and friends.

The Catholic Diocese of Rumbek has been active in helping the displaced, most of whom returned to Rumbek in the middle of last year. Assistant parish priest Father Henry Gidudu describes their plight.

"They are really very poor. They can't afford most of the basic necessities of life, so they rely on the help of the NGOs [non-government organizations] and the churches around. Another problem that they are facing is diseases because of poor shelter and sanitation. So, from time to time we have cases of bloody diarrhea," he explained.

Besides coping with the loss and disappearance of family members, some returnees find they are rejected by the communities they left behind.

Father Gidudu says that, although most in the community welcome returnees with joy, there are some who are resentful. Some community members, he says, are angry that they stayed and suffered, while others ran away. They feel returnees have come back just to get water and other scarce resources.

The Catholic Diocese of Rumbek, through the Norwegian government, is providing returnees in two camps with materials to construct grass-thatched houses that would keep out the rain and provide a bit more comfort.

Father Gidudu says community reintegration is a priority in the diocesan project.

"One thing we are discouraging as they go to the new site: they should not go as a new camp or modified camp, but they should go as beginning a new life, living like any other person in the community. And we have made sure that, in the new site, they live not like a camp, but just scattered like a village," he said.

The experience of returnees in Rumbek is being replicated in towns and villages all across southern Sudan, as local authorities, aid groups and others gear up for mass movements of people now that peace has come to Sudan.

The Sudanese government and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement signed a peace agreement on January 9 to end more than two decades of war. An estimated two million people died in the conflict, and about four million were displaced.

The United Nations refugee agency reports that about 200,000 non-registered refugees and 400,000 internally displaced people have already returned to their homes in southern Sudan since late last year.

The agency estimates there are another 550,000 southern Sudanese refugees in neighboring countries such as Kenya, and several million internally displaced people within southern Sudan.

The acting head of the U.N. refugee agency told participants at a recent donors' conference for Sudan that her agency aims to meet the needs of those who have already returned, plus start a repatriation and reintegration program for more than a million refugees and internally displaced people by September.

Emmanuel Nyabera is a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. He describes to VOA some of the many challenges people face when they return home.

"One of them definitely is lack of education. We're talking about sanitation, we're talking about health services, we're talking about landmines that are strewn all over southern Sudan,” he noted. “So, for them to move back to their homes, definitely, we have to create situations in their homes that will enable them to go back in dignity and safety."

And, if Rumbek is any indication, people are returning to towns with very little or no social services and infrastructure.

In one southern Sudanese county, called Bor, where more than 35,000 refugees are expected to return, there is not a single secondary school. The county of Yei, which has a population of about 180,000 people, has only two doctors.

International donors recently pledged more than $4 billion for post-war reconstruction in Sudan, with the United States promising about $1.7 billion.

The United States announced earlier this month that it would contribute an additional $18 million to the U.N. refugee agency to help southern Sudanese refugees living in Kenya to return home.