Global Politics

South Sudan's returnees

Decades of civil war in Sudan have driven many people from their homes. But many have returned in recent years,and with an upcoming referendum on the country's future scheduled for January, more people have headed back so that they can register to vote. Sean Carberry reports on returnees in Juba, the capital of south Sudan, about their lives in exile, and the challenges of going home.

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The port in Juba is little more than a flat strip of dirt amid a grove of trees. The White Nile River meanders by. Small barges float up and unload shipping containers full of food and supplies, since just about everything here is imported.

Boats also pull up carrying families and all their possessions. Many of them are getting off and setting up camp. The port has become a veritable shantytown. The lucky ones here have tents, but the rest, including people like Raymond Mindi, are sitting out in the open with everything they own.

�We went to Khartoum in the north not for personal interest but because there was war,� said Mindi.

He and his family fled the south in 1992. Sitting on his metal bed under a tree, he describes his life in Khartoum. His family's clothing, furniture, and personal items sit in a pile next to them.

�I was in a camp called Jebel Oulia,� he said. �It is about 5,000 families who were staying there. In order to survive there, the women, especially those without husbands, would work doing laundry or housekeeping.�

He said that he was a builder and was able to do small jobs on a regular basis to earn money to support the family. Additionally he said that most people in the Khartoum camp lived in tents and received some help from aid organizations, but for the most part they had to fend for themselves as second-class citizens in their own country.

�It took us so long to come back to the south because of a lack of funds,� Mindi said. � There was a program run by NGO (Non-Governmental Organizations) to bring people back to the south, but when that initiative started in 2008, there were many people, too many.�

Over the years, the UN, the Government of South Sudan and groups like the International Organization for Migration helped resettle people to the south, but they have had limited resources.

Of the more than two million who have returned to the south, only about 10-15 percent have come through organized resettlement programs. And those who made the trip on their own haven't returned to much.

�I arrived on the 8th of September and I can't afford to leave,� said Joyce Nafisia Abraham. She and her three children have been living under a makeshift tent for months.

�I cannot take my family back to my homeland where I wanted to go,� said Abraham. �We survive on the food that was given to us by an aid organization. We were also given 700 pounds [$250] before we left, and this is the money that I used to survive for all the time that I am here.�

700 Sudanese pounds is what she was given in Khartoum to help her pay her way home. But, once she arrived in Juba, there was no one to help her. She fled fighting in 1989.

Her husband stayed behind and eventually died in the war in 1992. So, Abraham had to do whatever she could to survive in the north.

�I was brewing alcohol to earn money for the children to survive, and to send them to school,� she said. But, alcohol is illegal under the Islamic laws of North Sudan.

�We were not at all free in the north. In many cases the security men would come and we were sometimes arrested, and charged for brewing alcohol,� Abraham said.

After one arrest, Abraham spent a month in jail. Her children were left alone. Now, they all live together in a tent next to the river.

Government officials say they don't have the resources and capacity to help everyone coming back. And, aid organizations are slowly ramping up programs to help returnees. But, for now, that's of little help to Abraham, or people like Archangelo Bidi.

Bidi is sitting under a tree about a hundred feet away from Abraham. He's surrounded by his wife, 11 children, and all of their possessions. One of his young daughters is sleeping on a bed next to him, and his other children are happily playing in the shade.

He went north in 1969. When the north and south signed the peace agreement in 2005, he started saving money to return home.

�I thought it wise because there was now peace and stability in my place in southern Sudan,� he said. �So, I bring my children back to my homeland.�

He was also hoping to make it back to his home village in time to register for the referendum. Since he's homeless in Juba, he can't register here, and given his lack of money, and the lack of paved roads outside Juba, he's not expecting to make the long journey to his old village anytime soon.

He was hoping to return to the south years ago, but he just couldn't afford it. Despite all of this, he, like many others here sounded a note of optimism about being back in the south.

�I found that people are so free,� Bidi said. �Children can play, people can move all over and we really realized that people are enjoying total happiness and not like in Khartoum.�

But, he said there is one major concern at the moment.

�If it rains, the rain will rain on us here,� said Bidi. �We don't have any other assistance in which we can try to rescue our lives, but despite that we are happy because we have reached our place.�

And later that night, as if on cue, a storm rolled in and drenched Juba and everyone camped out at the port.