Forgotten people stranded for years by South Sudan’s war

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“They told us we’d only be here for six days, and that was six years ago,” Ramadan Wani says.

Anxiously rubbing his hands together, the 46-year-old sits hunched on a makeshift stool in his tattered house in Payuer, a displaced persons’ camp in South Sudan’s border town of Renk. He hasn’t seen his family in all that time. He is one of several hundred who have become stranded because of their attachment to their belongings. They are waiting to be transported, with their baggage, a resettlement option that dried up long ago.

When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, Wani was one of 68,000 people who returned from Sudan in hopes of starting a new life in the world’s youngest nation. Aided by the United Nations and South Sudan’s government, he was relocated to Renk, where he was told he’d be transported to his hometown of Yambio along the border with Congo — on the other side of the country.

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“I was so happy that we were separate countries,” says Wani, who had been living in Sudan for more than three decades. “I wanted to go home.”

But South Sudan’s civil war, which erupted in 2013, created the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. Wani and hundreds of others like him are perhaps the conflict’s most unusual displaced population. The Payuer camp is home to nearly 2,000 people, the majority of them stranded since the start of the fighting after arriving from Sudan.

Six years ago, Wani’s wife and three children joined over 12,000 people who were flown by the U.N. from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, to South Sudan’s capital, Juba. Because they were unable to carry their luggage on the plane, Wani traveled by land across the border to Renk with the family’s belongings.

He says South Sudan’s government assured him he soon would be transported by barge down the Nile and reunited with his family.

But days turned into weeks and weeks into months, and when fighting erupted in December 2013 between President Salva Kiir’s government soldiers and forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, the transports stopped entirely. Roads between Renk and Juba are too dangerous to travel, and the few flights are too expensive.

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“Unfortunately the outbreak of the crisis in December 2013 also drew on resources from continuing returnee operations,” says Ashley McLaughlin, communications officer for the U.N. migration agency. As humanitarian needs grew across the country, McLaughlin says financial support for onward transportation assistance “sharply diminished.”

Those stranded in Renk were faced with a choice: Give up your possessions and leave, or remain and wait for peace.

“I couldn’t leave my things,” Wani says. “It’s all we had.”

During a visit by the AP in August, piles of metal chairs, ripped suitcases, broken radios and stained wooden shelves littered the dirt paths in Payuer camp. Desperate families used spare furniture to clog leaky roofs, while others fortified the walls of their homes with bed frames.

“Had I known I wouldn’t have been able to take my luggage, I would have sold it,” says Anania Lojang Loku, chairman of Payuer camp.

In 2012, Loku was told that he would be in Renk for just three days before being transferred to Juba to join his family. Five years later, he says he doubts he’ll ever see his wife and four children again. Charged with looking after the luggage of eight relatives, he says he’s trapped.

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“People still call to ask how their luggage is doing,” Loku says, pointing to a mound of ripped sofa cushions and kitchen utensils collecting dust behind his house.

South Sudan’s government says it is trying to find a way to send people home, but admits that it’s not a priority.

“It’s not happening,” says Zplon Akok, the head of the government’s humanitarian arm in Renk. He believes the government wants to help but says it’s a struggle due to lack of funds and the country’s humanitarian crisis.

In the meantime, those in the camps say they feel abandoned.

In February, the UN migration agency closed its clinic in Payuer, leaving people to walk 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) to the nearest hospital. Disease is rife and locals say that more than 10 children have died from malaria in the past six months.

“I have no feeling anymore,” Loku says, tucking both arms between his legs. “Everyone just sits here. We just sit here, staying sad.”