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Sudanese Refugees Head Home 


An estimated four million people fled southern Sudan, during Sudan's 21-year civil war between the nation's ruling Islamist regime and southern rebels. In 2005, a peace agreement ended the war, paving the way for the return of the largest refugee population in the world.

The day begins at dawn. The horns signal that it is time to leave.

Men, women and children hurry from their tents here at the way station, outside of Khartoum, to get on board their assigned buses.

Three hundred and seventy one southern Sudanese are traveling home to the south, Thursday.

Two million southerners left their villages and came north to Khartoum to escape fighting during Sudan's civil war.

Here, they faced racial and religious prejudice, which kept them confined largely to impoverished ghetto areas.

Southern Sudanese are African Christians or Animists.

Northern Sudanese are Muslims and pride themselves on their Arab heritage.

Suspicion and hostility are rife between the two groups.

Passenger Steven Mayik is returning home after 10 years in Khartoum. He explains his problem with northern Sudanese.

"They say that we, the black people, we are not able to rule; we are not supposed to be with them," said Mayik. "But the time has come, we can say to them, 'bye, bye' We don't need anything from them again. All the black people will return back."

A peace agreement was signed by northern Sudan and southern rebels in 2005, ending the war.

However, most southerners had no money to return home.

Now, the International Organization for Migration, in cooperation with the government of Sudan and the United Nations, is returning southerners to their homes in any way possible -- by bus, plane, train and river barge.

The bus trip will take the returnees over 1,300 kilometers of badly rutted roads.

Excitement rapidly turns to frustration.

The buses are cramped and, during the day, temperatures rise above 40 degrees Celsius.

At night, the travelers camp at way stations and sleep in tents provided by the IOM.

Jadranko Bjelica works with the IOM in Kadugli. He greets one of these convoys nearly every day.

"This is the procedure normally: the trucks, buses are coming in. We do have water for collecting, drinking and cooking," said Bjelica. "They can take shower, they can relax a bit, they can cook. As comfortable as possible over the night and then early morning everybody needs to be packed up and continue the journey.

Sixteen thousand people have already been returned from Khartoum by bus.

One hundred thousand refugees have returned from Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

By the third day of travel, everyone is exhausted. There are complaints about the heat and the lack of food and water.

Several people are suffering from dehydration.

But all is forgiven the following afternoon when the buses arrive at their destination in Bentiu State.

The travelers are greeted by hundreds of local people.

Everyone in this small village has come out to greet the new arrivals.

A young man beats a drum called a bool and women sing a song of welcome.

Travelers greet friends and relatives they have not seen in years.

John Paul Chachim is the deputy secretary of the local welcoming committee. He has just met an old friend whom he has not seen in seven years.

"This one here is my colleague. I know him very well," said Chachim. "He was a young boy, but now he has become older than before."

Officials caution that some returnees may have trouble adjusting to life in the south, after so many years away.

But, for now, it seems most of the new arrivals are simply happy to finally be home.

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