Sudan's peacetime allure is deadly too

Hundreds of thousands of people lured back to southern Sudan have high hopes of peace after a 21-year civil war, but there are warnings of chronic food shortage, poor infrastructure and desolate homelands peppered with landmines.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that nearly 645 000 displaced people and 110 000 refugees will return to their villages in October and November during the harvest season.

“It is a big challenge for us and the government to welcome them. We have to settle them ... take care of their security, education and health,” said Jared Omyango, a local WFP official.

To date, at least 200 000 people—of the estimated four million who were displaced—have returned to south Sudan in the wake of a peace accord signed between the government in Khartoum and the former rebel faction Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in January, according to the WFP.

But long-buried landmines, debris-strewn villages and rampant insecurity, coupled with underdevelopment, not only hinder a swift return but lay bare the dangers such returnees face, aid workers and local SPLM officials said.

“The biggest problems are economy and security,” Father Andrea Haussman, a Catholic priest, said in the provisional capital, Rumbek.
“People cannot settle well.”

In addition, officials fear that returning refugees could introduce crime and spread HIV/Aids deeper into the region, where access to basic health care is already limited.

These challenges and a delay in the release of donor funds led the UN to caution in August that post-war reconstruction in southern Sudan is one of the most daunting challenges that humanitarian relief organisations have ever faced.

Since the peace accord, which ended a feud begun in 1983 when the Christian and animist south took up arms against the Islamic north, scores of southern Sudanese have been trekking back to their villages, only to find nothing remaining.

Abarku camp, about 12km north of Rumbek, is now home to about 450 returnees whose survival skills are stretched to the limits, despite receiving survival food rations from the WFP.

“We do not have enough food, no schools for our children, no medicines,” lamented Nora Sawa, a 46-year-old woman who fled the fighting in the south in 1985.

But Deng Wepi (22) who escaped to the former government garrison town of Wau, north-west of Rumbek, prefers staying in the camps, where the WFP meets basic requirements such as clean water, medicine and food.

With a steady influx of refugees in camps, the WFP is now focusing on expanding operations to serve an ever-increasing population of repatriating refugees.

“We are gradually getting out of an emergency phase [and] focusing more on development projects,” said the WFP’s Omyango.

In order to provide food supplies throughout the region, a team of UN deminers is currently clearing key roads to facilitate the flow of food supplies from Western Equatoria, the breadbasket of southern Sudan, to the barren lands in Sudan’s east.

The Catholic Church has also joined in redevelopment efforts, racing to build schools to cater to newly returned children.

Despite their Herculean efforts, aid groups have not yet been able to deliver sufficient supplies to tens of thousands of villagers living in the oil-rich but militia-infested areas of the Upper Nile region.—Sapa-AFP

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