Sudan's refugees wait and hope
The Sudanese government and rebel negotiators continued peace talks Tuesday.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."