Hard homecoming to newest nation South Sudan

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When Leo Okwahi Lole came back home to South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation and which he fled during the brutal civil war, he should have celebrated.

Instead, he and his family -- and some 20,000 others returning from Sudan -- were dumped in a fetid camp just across the border, and are now struggling to find onward transport back to their home villages far away in Eastern Equatoria state, hundreds of kilometers from where they left decades earlier.

But while international aid agencies, the United Nations and the fledging government of impoverished South Sudan are trying to transport them home, they neither have the cash nor the logistics to carry the piles of belongings that make up the life savings of those seeking to start a new life.

Leaving Sudan, many wanted to convert their savings into furniture and other belongings, fearful that the currency would be useless once across the border into South Sudan.

“The few properties I have, I have to stick with them so I can start life again, this is our problem now,” said Lole, who fled to Sudan to escape the 1983-2005 civil war between then southern rebels and Sudanese forces. The brutal conflict ended with a peace deal paving the way for South Sudan’s 2011 vote for full independence.

That peace deal triggered a giant movement of people, with the UN estimating that almost two million have returned to their villages, some travelling internally within the South, others coming from Sudan, and others returning from neighboring nations or even further abroad.

But the long and tough process continues.

After days of travel downstream on the White Nile River to the capital Juba, some 400 people are still waiting to be reunited with the huge piles of furniture -- which represent their life savings -- that they had to leave behind when barges took the returnees south.

“Renting a barge... is over $200,000 (154,000euros), so we need to use our resources as effectively as possible”, said the UN’s humanitarian chief for South Sudan, Toby Lanzer.

“On average it’s about $1,000 dollars per person and we’ve got about 20,000 people here... there simply isn’t the money to move all of these people and their luggage,” he said.

Tens of thousands yet to travel from Sudan

South Sudan won its independence, but with the split Lole -- like many others -- lost his job as an engineer in a sugar factory in now separate north Sudan.

He spent a fortune transporting his belongings to Renk, just across the border into South Sudan, in the hope that the U.N. or the government would then help transport him on.

But in refusing to abandon his belongings, he has remained stuck in a basic camp for almost a year.

“There are a lot, a lot, a lot of problems facing people here,” Lole said.

“Rains, people living in poor shelter, and then mosquitoes, then there are diseases and then the lack of food - people are hungry,” he said, admitting he was now being forced to sell his family’s goods in order to survive.

Peter Lam Both, who heads the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, said $16 million was earmarked to help people travel home, but funds have been stalled.

South Sudan switched to an austerity budget after shutting down the oil production that made up its almost entire revenue in 2012 in a furious row with Sudan. While the oil resumed flowing last month, support for those stuck in camps remains meager.

According to Both, up to a quarter of a million South Sudanese remain in Sudan, and the operation to return them home could “take millions of dollars”.

The U.N.-funded International Organization for Migration (IOM) moved over 9,000 people from Renk last year, a small drop in the possible numbers who are yet to travel home, with an estimated 40,000 South Sudanese living in shacks in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

But for 38-year-old Grace Nasona, selling her family’s fortunes to travel downstream to join her four children is too heavy a price to pay to leave the “very dirty place” she lives in.

“Why would I leave my things and go alone? I would sleep where? I need to take my things to Juba. There’s no money, I cannot sell my things,” she said.