Along one of the myriad channels that the mighty Nile cuts through Sudan, some 1,200 people, mostly women and children, are enduring their ninth week of being crammed onto the decks of four rusty river barges.
These decrepit vessels, essentially little more than large rafts, are designed for freight, not passengers. There are no cabins, no toilets, no cooking galleys, no shelter from the sun - or more critically, the rain, now that southern Sudan is soaked daily by seasonal downpours. Each boat is packed bow to stern with as many as 400 people.
A decade or more ago they left their grass-roofed huts in the country's south as civil war crept closer, fleeing to the shaky safety of squatter camps a thousand miles to the north. Exiles in their own country, they and millions of other Sudanese refugees have been there ever since.
Now they are trying to return home - by boat, bus, and on foot - against the advice of aid workers here. They are part of this North African nation's forgotten crisis, lost amid the humanitarian disaster in the western provinces of Darfur. At the beginning of the year, Sudan was on the verge of bringing to an end its 21-year civil war between the Muslim north and the largely Christian south.
But Sudan hit a speed bump on the road to peace as the world turned its attention to the Arab militias killing tens of thousands in Darfur. Some international aid destined for the southern refugees was diverted to Darfur - or is sitting in limbo until a north-south peace deal is signed. With growing numbers of the internally displaced beginning to return home, aid workers worry that a new Sudanese humanitarian disaster may be in the making.
"Darfur is a distraction from the needs of the south, both in terms of political engagement and humanitarian funding for relief and development," says Ben Parker, spokesman for the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan.
When the internally displaced people, or IDPs, finally arrive home, the conditions are dire. Because of late rains this year, famine is hitting the villages of south Sudan. Beyond that, two decades of civil war have robbed the region, with a population of 7.5 million, of schools, hospitals, and roads.
"Donors remain on standby to help if a peace agreement is signed in the south, but we hope they see the wisdom of investing now to prepare for the expected mass movement of people north to south if that peace happens," says Mr. Parker. "We haven't had much luck on that yet."
Until Darfur erupted, confidence was high that the Islamic government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the one-time southern rebel army, would finally sign a comprehensive peace agreement to end their conflict.
The rebels took up arms against Khartoum in 1983, starting what became Africa's longest civil war. The SPLM had massive support from the predominantly Christian and animist southern population, who were angry at a program of forced Islamicization. And what the south saw as an unfair allocation of resources, especially $2 billion in annual oil revenues, accelerated the conflict.
Aid agencies want to smooth the way home for refugees like those on the Nile barges, but rules forbid the release of funds until a full peace agreement is signed.
The former enemies came together with great fanfare four months ago in the Kenyan town of Naivasha to sign a comprehensive agreement that included power sharing, leaving only fine print to be hashed out. Final talks will resume in Kenya on Oct. 7 after a month-long break, Sayed el-Katib, Sudan's government negotiator, said Wednesday.
But with the situation in Darfur, where up to 50,000 people have been killed by government-backed militias, observers question whether the international community will accept a peace for the south signed by Khartoum when the same government is implicated in what the US terms genocide in Darfur.
"We were beginning the settlement of the conflict in the south after 21 years of extremely destructive civil war," says Andrew Natsios, the US Agency for International Development's special humanitarian coordinator for Sudan. "That civil war has now been transferred to Darfur. We need to refocus the international spotlight in a balanced way on both the Naivasha peace accords and Darfur. Implementing the Naivasha accords will be the beginning of the foundation of a peace for Darfur."
Yet even as peace hopes falter, the south Sudanese risk arduous trips to get home on whispers that peace is near and the south is safe. The UN World Food Program and Sudanese relief agencies estimate that 1.5 million are on the move or home already.
Nura Saua left her five eldest children with her sister in the Wad el-Bashir camp outside Khartoum and spent four days with her other five children, ages 3 to 11, on a bus heading southwest. The bus dropped them as close as it could to their home town of Rumbek, once a key battlefield in the civil war, which they fled 14 years ago as fighting advanced.
Still, they had to walk 430 miles along sometimes mined paths. Ms. Saua sold the clothes off her family's backs to buy food, and dug for wild fruit and ground nuts from the rich soil.
When they arrived home, safe but exhausted after two months, Saua found her extended family dead and their land carved up among strangers. Now she and the children cower under Sudan's apocalyptic seasonal downpours in a 10 ft. by 6 ft. stick and palm-leaf shelter.
"Here I have nothing and it is difficult, of course. But there [in the camp] I had nothing and I was not even in my own place," Saua says. "Now I wake in the morning happier because I am home."