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UN Plans for Huge Repatriation of Sudanese Refugees

The U.N. refugee agency says it is preparing for an eventual return of more than 500,000 refugees to southern Sudan, following the peace agreement between Sudan's government and rebel leaders in the south.

The peace agreement, which was signed 10 days ago, officially ends more than two decades of civil conflict. But the war has left Sudan with a terrible legacy of death and destruction.

The United Nations says two decades of war have left an estimated two million people dead, four million displaced in south Sudan and another 500,000 refugees living in exile in neighboring countries. Furthermore, it says southern Sudan's infrastructure and economy have been wrecked.

A U.N. refugee spokeswoman, Jennifer Clark, says it will not be possible to start returning people to the homes they fled decades ago until basic services are re-established and roads, bridges, buildings and other necessary structures are rebuilt. Ms. Clark says the UNHCR re-opened three of its offices in the south and has begun righting some of the bad conditions.

"And, we have already begun some small-scale rehabilitation," she said. "Things like health facilities, community services, schools and water and sanitation facilities. But, so far, it has been an initial step. We have as a main constraint funding. We asked for almost 30 million [dollars] already last year to allow us to start putting these things in place and we only received six million of that. So, really just a fraction of what was needed."

The UNHCR estimates it will need $60 million for the return and reintegration of Sudanese refugees to southern Sudan this year.

Ms. Clark says it might be possible to begin repatriating people within a matter of months if the agency receives the funding it needs.

The UN World Food Program also will play a pivotal role in assisting the half-million refugees and four million displaced people to return home. WFP spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume says food assistance will be crucial in making sure people stay home.

"It is really very important for us to help them start a new life. It is important for them. It is important for the stability of the peace process," said Ms. Berthiaume. "It is one thing to sign a peace process. Now you have to implement it and, if we help those people, than next year, we will probably have less people to help. And the year after as well."

The WFP is appealing for $300 million in emergency food assistance for more than three million Sudanese during the coming year.

The United Nations predicts this year's harvest in southern Sudan is likely to be 46 percent lower than last year.