A bus pulls up at the station in Rubkona, the terminus for thousands of south Sudanese returning from the north as partition looms. A man perched on the roof throws his luggage to the ground, as one might on entering one’s living room.
Metal bed frames and plastic bags touting the charms of Paris or the beauty of African wildlife are piled up alongside empty bottles and other rubbish that lie scattered around this bustling thoroughfare of heat and activity.
It is the end of a two-day journey from Khartoum that has brought the weary travellers to a town on the outskirts of Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, to participate in the historic referendum on southern independence due to take place in January.
Ragged youths are sitting on their wheelbarrows nearby awaiting the chance to transport the baggage of the latest arrivals.
Among the newcomers is James Mawich, 38, a builder and father of 10.
“I’m not going back to Khartoum. The situation there is not okay. With the referendum, it will be even worse for the southerners in Khartoum,” he says.
“We were told by the northerners: ‘If you’re not going now and you have independence, where are you going to stay?'”
Returning home to vote
The authorities in the south have set up a $25-million “return home to vote” programme aimed at repatriating around 1,5-million southerners living in the north and getting them to vote in the January referendum.
The numbers are sketchy, but the International Organisation for Migration and their partners say around 12 000 have arrived in Bentiu since September.
The sudden influx of people has caught the local authorities unprepared and forced them to take over five schools in Bentiu to temporarily house the new arrivals, as the seasonal rains have made numerous villages in the region inaccessible.
“It’s a mess, a complete mess!” said an aid worker in Bentiu, requesting anonymity.
“There has been a complete lack of preparation and we were shocked when we saw 50 buses arriving in two days in early November. We thought the government (of south Sudan) would take the lead and we would fill the gap. It’s actually the other way round.”
Help urgently needed
Bentiu’s governor, Taban Deng Gai, admitted that the task of accommodating the tide of new arrivals ahead of the referendum has not been an easy one, but he believes the conditions for many were no better in the north.
“They will be facing problems but I believe they will be the same problems they were facing in the north. They were not living a good life in north Sudan; it is a very arid land. Here they will face problems of shelter and of food, but we hope that with our partners we will overcome these problems.”
Humanitarian workers have complained, however, of the authorities’ reluctance to finance or organise help for the returnees.
At the El-Gemiya school the scene is a shambolic, with possessions — furniture, televisions, beds, sofas, clothes and buckets — gathered in heaps.
But Abuk Maker, 26, who headed to Khartoum in the late 1980s, at the height of the decades-long civil war between north and south Sudan, is glad to be back.
“I can’t compare here with the north because even if it’s not comfortable, at least here I don’t get harassed. In the north you feel you’re not at home. I’m happy (to be back) but I’ll be very happy when I manage to see my family.” — Sapa-AFP