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Sudan's Southern Youth Anxious to Rebuild

Two decades of civil war between Sudan's Islamist northern government and southern rebels came to an end one year ago. Now, millions of displaced southern Sudanese want to return home. The task of rebuilding the south will not be easy, but the nation's youth are especially anxious to begin the process. For some of them, it is their first time in south Sudan since they were children. As adults, they know what has to be done.

One hundred and forty young Sudanese are waiting patiently outside of south Sudan's immigration office. They know the office is closed, but they have come anyway. They will return tomorrow and again the next day.

The students are here to apply for Sudanese passports. It may seem unimportant to some, but for these young people it is proof that they are Sudanese citizens. For years they have been displaced in Kenya and Uganda. With passports they will be able to come and go in their country as they please.

The young people are in good spirits. Though they have exams next week, there is not a book in sight, and many say they would rather miss their tests than miss this opportunity.

They were born in southern Sudan but fled during the war. They are returning after years spent in refugee camps. In those camps the students say they were treated with suspicion. And they were always well aware that they were not citizens of their host nation.

Mabe Bosco is twenty four years old and is anxious to feel like a Sudanese citizen for the first time in his life.

"We want to get the Sudanese nationality. We want to get the Sudanese passport so we can move freely into our country and back. When I return to Sudan I want to join hands with people who are already here in development. In the way in which I can participate; use my best to move the country forward. I am someone who is a fan of community service. I study economics," he said. "I want to be close to people and I want to work directly. I want to see the fruit of my work.

Mabe and his peers have come to assess the situation in south Sudan. They are looking at the state of education. They are giving workshops and lectures on HIV and AIDS. And they are planning what they will do when they graduate from university and move back to south Sudan permanently.

Achen Fatty says she knows exactly what she wants to do. After studying education in Uganda she says she is disgusted by the state of education in south Sudan.

"I felt so bad. When I look at the side of education, not much is done. The will is there. People really want to be educated. But the resources are not there. They don't have the books. You find in a school they have pupil's textbooks and the teachers are using it as a teacher's resource guide. And they have only one copy," she said. "It is really terrible. On the teachers: they are not trained, they are not qualified."

Achen says she visited small villages where the young girls did not believe she was Sudanese. She is married and she still goes to school. For girls here, that seems impossible. Girls here are used to only making it as far as primary school. Then they are expected to begin looking after a home.

Those who plan to return are not moving back under ideal conditions. Paul Bugden is a protection officer with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The UNHCR began repatriating Sudanese in December. Bugden says many obstacles lie ahead.

There are many challenges. Infrastructure is the biggest challenge. The roads are in a terrible condition. There's a lot of landmines in south Sudan. The distances are enormous," said Mr. Bugden. "Logistically, there will be big challenges to return people to the places they want to reach."

Mr. Bugden says conditions are so difficult that UNHCR is still not promoting return for southerners because safety cannot be guaranteed. But that won't stop many from coming on their own.

The young people say they are well aware that they face enormous obstacles. But they will not give up. After an hour of waiting, with no sign of any immigration officials, the students decide to leave.

Three days later Margaret Biong is near tears as she inspects her bright green Sudanese passport.

"This is incredible because for the first time in the entire life of someone, me, having a passport, being a Sudanese national. It is too exciting," she said. "You just go where you come from and walk with your head straight up and say that no one can tell me I'm a refugee, because I am a national. I have a country. I own a passport from my own country. I think that is the one biggest achievements of my entire life."

Now, she says, it is time for her and others like her to return and rebuild.