Dry Season Offers Refugees Chance to Return Home

THEY could be just another "lost" population in Africa, far from home for reasons forgotten, their numbers rounded off to the nearest 10,000 by tired relief officials.

But for the 80,000 Sudanese at this huge camp in southern Sudan on the banks of the crocodile-infested Akobo River - which forms the border with Ethiopia - elaborate preparations have been under way to help them get home.

Eight months of the year this camp is an island of high ground surrounded by impassable swamps that stretch to each horizon.

The rains now have stopped, and for the first time since they arrived from camps in Ethiopia last May, pursued by Ethiopian rebels, refugees find that the road is clear for the month-long trek back to Bor and Kongor to the west.

These refugees first left their homes four years ago when fighting between rebels and the Islamic regime in the capital Khartoum came to their province. The refugees must now decide quickly whether to stay or return home, or the rains will catch them on the way.

An attack last month on the camp here from the Ethiopian side of the river - by roughly 200 unidentified men with an unknown agenda - has made Pochala seem a less desirable permanent option.

"These people have three enemies: Khartoum, the Nasir faction [SPLA], and the Ethiopians - they must go to Bor," says Jurkush Barach, who heads the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA) for Pochala. The SRRA is the relief branch of the SPLA.

The International Committee of the Red Cross would like the refugees to return home, too, but for other reasons.

"It is now or never - if we don't get these people out, then we must feed Pochala for another year," says the Red Cross's Ole Sorensen, who coordinates food supplies to the camp. "They are well fed now and ready to move, but we do realize we will lose some people."

The Red Cross stresses it will not force the refugees to move. It can only minimize hunger and thirst on the road and increase the survival rate at the other end. Troops of Col. John Garang's faction of the rebel SPLA control all territory on the route, and say they will give security for those walking home.

The decision whether or not to move was made more difficult when a mission of elders from the camp, Mr. Barach, and a Red Cross official returned last week from the Bor-Kongor area. They reported the refugees would get a welcome from those now in the villages, but that Bor was devastated by a November massacre and protection from more attacks cannot be guaranteed by the SPLA.

"We are confident that 40,000 of these refugees will go," says Georges Comninos, deputy chief of the Red Cross delegation to southern Sudan. "Now we are waiting for people to decide."

For those who squeeze through the window of opportunity this dry season, 6,000 Red Cross-made "basic item kits" have already been flown to Pochala, with jerrycans for water, some food, cooking utensils, and blankets to be given each family for their return journey. A additional 4,000 kits are being put together in Nairobi, Kenya, although Khartoum's cutoff of authorization for relief flights could hamper plans for further aid.

The Red Cross had also planned to provide food deposits and water supplies to refugees along the way, as well as "rehabilitation kits," containing fishing line and hooks, a sickle for clearing land, a hoe, and a set of seeds that will yield a first crop within 40 days.

"They said we are free to go anywhere, anytime," says one school teacher in the camp. "We want to go home, but so far it is a hard decision."

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