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April 27, 2013

South Sudan Returnees Stuck in Limbo, Face Tough Choice

by Hannah McNeish

About two million people have returned to South Sudan since a 2005 peace agreement ended decades of civil war that is estimated to have killed around the same number. But since South Sudan became a nation 18 months ago, tens of thousands of people who have wanted to enter South Sudan from the north are trapped in border towns, and face the tough choice of leaving behind their possessions as U.N. agencies struggle to get them home.

Surrounded by piles of furniture and blackboards in a makeshift home on the banks of the Nile, Mary Venerato Laki does her best to try to teach the children at a camp in the port town of Renk.

Some people have waited for up to two years for the government and aid agencies in South Sudan to take them downstream to new homes. Laki is among those waiting.  “They said there will be steamers [ships] coming to collect us. They used to tell us like that. That we will be going, we be going.  But until now we are waiting," she said.

Some 20,000 people are stuck here with no schools and a lack of health services and food.  Many are alone and have to guard the family’s worldly possessions, which are considered a safer investment than money.

“Our money in the north, they don’t use [it] in the south. Many of the people, the little money they have, they bought things, so that if they bring money, it will be taken on the way. This is why the boat has to come to take the things," said Laki.

But after a territorial dispute that almost brought Sudan and South Sudan to war again, and caused the north to close the border, the new nation halted oil production, cutting off its economic lifeline.

Shelving its $16 million commitment to bring people back, local authorities in Upper Nile state caused further delays by trying to impose a tax on the aid agency barges taking people south.

The U.N.-funded International Organization for Migration, or IOM, has helped transport just 40,000 people out of some 700,000 returnees since November 2010.

But the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, says the IOM cannot afford to transport what it estimates is 30 cubic feet of luggage per person.

“We’re talking about a multimillion-dollar operation. On average it’s about $1,000 per person, and we’ve got about 20,00 people here, so you do the math. There simply isn’t the money to move all of these people and their luggage," he said.

Lanzer says the time has come to make tough choices. “If you do want to move home, one thing is clear: it’s going to be really hard for the government or the U.N. to help move a few people with 30 cubic meters of luggage. I think a lot of the luggage is going to need to be sold off or donated and that will generate some income which will help people start afresh," he said.

The chairperson of the state-run Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Peter Lam Both, says an estimated quarter-million people still in Sudan might want to come south.

With 40,000 already living in makeshift camps and poor conditions in Khartoum, Renk’s resources could soon be stretched even further.  Both says tough choices on resettlement and repossession are looming.

“We’ve said to them, 'You need to sell some of these luggage because some of them are not really in good shape. Once you pack up things for two years and you put them in one place you will never expect them to remain in good condition the way you put them before.' We have said, 'You need to sell them so when you get to your final destination you will be able to purchase for yourself some new materials wherever you are going," he said.

But for widow Mary Venerato Laki, whose siblings and parents all died, selling the family’s fortune - meant to provide for four orphaned nieces who are already in Juba - is a sacrifice she cannot face.