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For Southern Sudanese, A Difficult Road Home

Southern Sudan is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the landmark 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed with the North. Often overlooked amid the politics of the peace deal is the migration of millions who soon after returned home to a land left bare from decades of war.

The thick roadside vegetation dissolves without warning. Taking its place are freshly constructed huts, lining what just years ago had been abandoned grounds.

Thomas is an Acholi who fled with his family across the Ugandan border when he was seven years old. Now 26, he describes what life has been like since his return in 2007 to the land of his childhood memories. "Blissful" is not a word he would use.

"We do not have many things; we are lacking. We do not have schools, water even is not there. We do not even have a place where we can buy things, like a town. We lack very many things," he said.

And Thomas is lucky. United Nations-funded re-integration programs have led to the recent construction of a school as well as a spattering of simple health clinics. The mere presence of these new community institutions puts Thomas and his kin in a fortunate minority within South Sudan.

By the end of the civil war, an estimated four million southern Sudanese had been internally displaced, most to the North. An additional 450,000 had registered as refugees in neighboring countries.

About half of the IDPs and 330,000 of the refugees have since come home, accounting for a quarter of South Sudan's total population.

Life for migrants is never easy. But few have ever willingly stepped back into conditions as dire as those found in southern Sudan.

The region has the highest childbirth-related death rates and the lowest immunization rates in the world. Female illiteracy is more than 90 percent. Only a half of the region's kids will ever step into a school - a number which has actually quadrupled since 2005.

The head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in South Sudan, Lise Grande, says most of these migrants' sky-high expectations following the peace announcement have been replaced with "real disappointment and frustration."

She says this staggering influx of returnees only complicated what was an already precarious situation.

"There had not ever been schools, there had not ever been health clinics, there was not ever, really, a strong state presence in any shape or form - and suddenly two million people who are themselves destitute and poor start coming back. The stress on local communities and whatever infrastructure was there has been simply enormous," she said.

While about half of the refugee returnees received U.N. assistance, only about five percent of the returning internally displaced people were directly helped during their move and re-integration. And the challenges they have faced upon arrival have been many.

Most of the displaced had fled to urban centers or designated camps. Trying to adjust back to rural agriculture or pastoralism - after years away from the trade and without startup capital - has proven problematic. Many are now instead flocking to the region's cities, a process causing its own set of troubles.

Grande says for a region that last year only got one-fifth of the humanitarian funds as did Sudan's western region of Darfur, the result was fairly predictable.

"The scope of the returnees was so huge that you would have had to have had the most rapid rural development program in the history of modernity to keep up with it. And that was just clearly not going to be the case here in the South," she said.

The steady flow of returnees has now fallen to a trickle. According to UNHCR statistics, only a few hundred refugees re-settled in southern Sudan during the second half of last year, compared with more than 65,000 throughout all of 2008.

Instead, 380,000 southerners were actually displaced in 2009, mostly from escalating violent inter-tribal clashes.

During a visit to his agency's southern Sudan operations late last year, Geneva-based UNHCR Africa director George Okoth-Obbo warned that the new bloodshed risked rolling back the progress that had been made.

"We are concerned that the inter-ethnic violence of the type that we have witnessed recently could bring back displacement again and impact the dividends of the peace process. Every possible measure should be taken to safeguard these gains," he said.

For Thomas and his Acholi kin who have returned to Magwi, the future could be bright, and they express optimism. But the road ahead is uncertain.

Aid groups, advocacy organizations, and think tanks have all warned the upcoming year could bring renewed North-South war. Those many who remain displaced have seemingly decided to wait a bit longer before making the arduous journey back home.