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Sudan's refugees wait and hope

The Sudanese government and rebel negotiators continued peace talks Tuesday.

By Abraham McLaughlin, Meera Selva / February 18, 2004


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.

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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.

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.