A year after freedom, South Sudanese languish up north
Conflict and poverty stand in the way of perhaps 40,000 South Sudanese whose bags were packed a year ago but are now stranded in squatter camps of the north.
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"There is no hope," says Illario Upiou, at the group meeting. "Nobody told us anything."Skip to next paragraph
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That sentiment is helping drive the new effort to get these South Sudanese back to their areas, even though estimates of the total number of southerners still in the north sometimes top 170,000 – but could actually be half that.
'No operational plan'
Though hundreds of thousands already went south, the government ran out of money earlier this year, says Jill Helke, the chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Sudan.
"If you ask people if they want to go back [to the south], the answer depends on who is asking, and perceptions of the options," says Ms. Helke. "Now there is no operational plan, still no idea how many southern Sudanese there, are and who wants to stay."
Earlier this year, IOM moved 500 people south on two trains. And this spring, after fighting made barge movement too tricky and roads unsafe, the IOM moved 12,000 people from a way station at Kosti – built to house just one-tenth that number – first by road back up north to Khartoum, then south by air.
The 10-day Heglig conflict in April brought "hateful stuff" about southerners, from northern politicians and the media, ridiculing "enemies, cockroaches, aliens, so even those [southerners] who wanted to stay might have second thoughts," says Helke.
"Donors had their fill from the very beginning, because both governments have taken no responsibility whatsoever," adds Helke. "For the last year, donors say the situation is not enough of an emergency. And still the problem is that South Sudan is such a mess, they ask how can we send people back there, only to look after them there?"
Welcome to the jungle
South Sudanese who have spent years in the north are sometimes "regarded as outsiders" in the south, where "absorption capacity is zero," notes Helke. Some 1,130 people still remain in a transit camp in the southern capital of Juba, and transitions have not been easy.
"People arrive after 20 years [in the north]. They are urbanized, but outside of Juba it is jungle," says a UN humanitarian source who asked not to be named. "They are shellshocked, and told: 'Here's your $10 and your place 150kms [93 miles] away.' In most areas there is no infrastructure; 90 percent of health and education is handled by NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. And since 2005, $4 billion has gone missing."
But the risks of staying on in the north are also high, as the economy deteriorates and north-south tensions are easily fanned.
"Southerners don't feel secure here, and the sooner they begin their lives in the south, the better," says the UN official. "We are now at the juncture, and I think donors need to rethink" their reluctance to fund the return.
In recent weeks, the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission said it would truck to the south these 40,000 "stranded" around Khartoum.
"So far nothing has been forthcoming," says the UN official, "except for this soundbite."