The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is getting ready to help many southern Sudanese refugees return home after more than two decades in exile. Now that a peace agreement has been signed ending a long civil war, the UNHCR plans the first repatriation convoy for mid-December.

Marie-Ellen Verney is a spokesperson for the UN agency.  From Geneva, she spoke to English to Africa?s Joe De Capua about the repatriation operation.

She says, ?We?re talking about really in total about half a million Sudanese refugees in several countries around South Sudan, mainly Kenya, DRC and Uganda. And the first repatriation we are hoping to start before the end of the year. It will very much depend on the conditions on the ground?and that would be for Sudanese refugees in Kakuma camp in (northwestern) Kenya.?

When asked if preparations were complete for the return of the refugees, the UNHCR spokesperson replied, ?South Sudan did not have very much before the war. It had two decades of war, so whatever was there before was destroyed. So to say that preparations have been completed is really probably over optimistic. I would really describe the situation as the bare minimum has been completed to allow people who want to come back now to go back. But you really have to imagine a place where there really was no infrastructure. There are no schools, no hospitals; the roads have been heavily mined. So, there?s also a big demining effort going on. It will take a very, very long time.? 

The Sudanese refugees are expected to return in small numbers. 

At the same time, the UNHCR is registering about 1700 Congolese refugees who have been in South Sudan for 40 years following the rise to power of Mobutu Sese Seko in the then Zaire. They had settled in Juba, which is now the capital of South Sudan, and have said they wished to return home. This, despite the fact that many of them were born in South Sudan.