A group of Sudanese refugees living in a camp in northern Kenya has begun returning home. This is the first of what the United Nations refugee agency hopes will be a large movement of Sudanese going back to their post-war country.
About 150 Sudanese, some traveling by road and some by air, left Kakuma refugee camp in the early hours of Saturday.
Senior Kenyan government officials were on hand to bid farewell to the Sudanese, many of whom had lived in the Kakuma camp since it opened in 1992.
Southern Sudanese officials are scheduled to welcome the refugees traveling by convoy, when they reach the border.
Emmanuel Nyabera, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, describes to VOA the mood at the departure center.
"People seem to be excited. I think, it's relatively emotional. There are also people who are not moving back [to Sudan], but they're all at the gates trying to see," he said. "I think it's that feeling of, 'oh, so it can actually happen.' So, we are hoping that this is the beginning of a very historic program that can see these people eventually go back home and definitely rebuild their country."
Sudan's most recent north-south civil war began in 1983, pitting rebels in the largely Christian south against the Arab-dominated northern government.
More than two million people died and four million were displaced during nearly two decades of warfare. About 500,000 southern Sudanese fled to Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and four other countries in the region.
A two-year peace process between the rebels and the government, held in neighboring Kenya, concluded when the two sides signed a comprehensive peace agreement on January 9 of this year.
About 72,000 Sudanese live in Kakuma camp. Mr. Nyabera, of the UNHCR, says about 2,000 people have volunteered to go home, and the agency hopes to repatriate them by March. The U.N. agency is conducting an information campaign among the remaining Sudanese at Kakuma camp to help them decide whether to return.
Mr. Nyabera says all Sudanese refugees will eventually be urged to leave Kenya and other places, when the conditions are right. "If we are totally convinced that the reasons that made them leave their country and come and seek asylum here no longer exit, then we'll definitely let them know that the time has come for them to go back," he said. "But, of course they still can appeal and say that, listen, as an individual, I don't think it's safe for me to go back."
Mr. Nyabera says there are still a few areas in southern Sudan that are unsafe.