Sudan's refugees wait and hope

The Sudanese government and rebel negotiators continued peace talks Tuesday.

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Gazing across a wide, barren plain near Khartoum - its red dust stretching to the horizon - Remijo Lado dreams of going home. Instead of subsisting in this lifeless place, he'll live among trees and rolling hills. Instead of begging for food, he'll farm rich soil. Instead of a shack with cardboard walls, he'll build a brick house for his five kids. After 12 years, he'll finally see his brother's smile.

His home is in Sudan's south, a promised land some 700 miles away.

Mr. Lado and millions of other southern Sudanese fled their homes during Africa's longest civil war, in which rebels from the animist or Christian south have clashed with forces loyal to the government of the Arab and Muslim north.

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Peace talks resumed Tuesday after a break for the Muslim hajj. The remaining obstacles are the makeup of a transitional administration, the future of three disputed areas in central Sudan, and whether the capital, Khartoum, should be governed under Islamic law.

With hopes high for a formal peace deal, Lado and others are ready to return in one of the major migrations of modern times - perhaps some 500,000 people this year alone. Many will walk, carrying what they can.

How they fare will help define the future of Africa's biggest country. A smooth migration could bolster fragile peace. A chaotic one could spark new tensions.

Will returnees be treated as political pawns by once-warring parties? Will they avoid land mines and other obstacles on the way? Will they be welcomed by relatives, who may not want to give up land?

After decades of city living, will they chafe at traditional customs - and the lack of paved roads, schools, and hospitals? Indeed, the south is so primitive that some farmers used ox-drawn plows for the first time last year. Lado discounts these concerns, saying simply, "Our motherland is there."

But aid groups are scrambling to prepare. UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency, is seeking $465 million this year to help returnees. Donors have promised funds when a deal is struck. But aid groups say they need money now. "Once the deal is signed, we will be totally overwhelmed. People will come immediately, and we will not be able to cope with them," says Guyson Adikobaa of Catholic Relief Services in Rumbek.

It's not certain how many Sudanese have been displaced over the past two decades by the north-south conflict, either internally or into neighboring countries. Estimates range from 3 million to 5 million.

Meanwhile, a whole other set of people is being displaced by the separate and growing conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region. This week the UN began airlifting food to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Chad-Sudan border areas, officials said.

Some 2 million internal refugees live near Khartoum. Aid agencies are guessing that 400,000 to 600,000 of them will head south relatively soon after the peace deal. More than half a million are in neighboring Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. For some, the exodus has already begun.

Shy, lanky Santino Buom set off from the Ethiopian refugee camp he's lived in for 16 years when he heard about the halt in fighting. He walked for two months to Leer, a Western Upper Nile town that saw some of the fiercest clashes. He found his mother and sister in a nearby settlement camp. His three brothers and father had been killed by bombs.

"When the fighting began, I lost my family in the confusion. All these years, I didn't know if they were alive or dead," he says, playing with the frayed hem of his faded red T-shirt. "When I heard there was peace, I knew I had to go and find them."

Santino's story is repeated across southern Sudan. In Bor county, an often flooded plain where cows wander the Nile's marshy banks, 30,000 people returned last year. Officials expect 60,000 this year - a big jump for a county that can't provide food and clean water for its current 200,000 residents.

So far, returnees have been welcomed by relatives and friends. The southern clan system is strong. Most have moved in with relatives, who feel obligated to host them. But as numbers increase, tensions could rise.

The war has devastated the south. There are no phones, no paved roads, no electricity. Even main towns like Rumbek and Bor are ghost-like. With no buildings left standing, the UN and Western aid agencies have erected tents and tin huts as hospitals and schools. Two decades of bombing and gunfire have halted farming. The World Food Program provides food for 1.4 million people in southern Sudan. More than 75 percent of the people can't get clean water.

"There is an obligation to look after our people. They will come whether we are ready or not, but right now, we do not have anything to look after them with," says Paul Machuei Malok, a former fighter in the Sudan People's Liberation Army and now commissioner for Rumbek.

Nura Sawa is a mother of six who left Rumbek in 1984 and spent 20 years in Khartoum. She traveled for six weeks by truck and foot to get back and now lives in a house made of palm leaves. Her neighbors' huts are built of dried mud and thatched straw roofs - better for keeping out rain. "I have nothing here, nothing at all," Ms. Sawa says. "But this is my motherland, and I have to be here, even though it's hard."

Hezron Kaburu, a logistics clerk at the World Food Program, says returnees often face social and economic problems. "About 40 percent of returnees who come from Khartoum return there after six months," he says. "In cities they are used to buying with money, but out here they must barter. And it's very easy for the local people to cheat them. They often find they miss both the security and the excitement of living in a town."

But in Khartoum, Lado says it can only be better at home. He says his house in the Wad el Bashier internal-refugee camp has been demolished twice by government bulldozers. Back south in Juba, "even if there is no work, I can cultivate land," he says. "And I will slowly build up my house - six rooms for my children and wife and me."

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