On a motorcycle tour of his South Sudan neighborhood of thatched straw lean-tos and mud huts, many of them sprouting makeshift television antennas, Santino Deng gestures to a group of children busily rolling up straw fences and packing up wooden poles.
“They’re preparing for the demolition tomorrow,” he explains, as if this is an everyday occurrence. There is resignation in his voice after months of trying to convince the state government to reverse its decision to raze his neighborhood near the state government's office. His efforts did not bear fruit. Asked where his family would go tomorrow when the government came to claim the property he has lived on since he returned from Khartoum in 2003, he shrugged and said, “I think we will go to my brother’s house, because we don’t have anywhere else to go."
Despite his best efforts to find out why the government wants to relocate hundreds of residents in the an area called “Zirrah” in Aweil, the capital of Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, Deng and his community have been left in the dark and told simply that they must relocate, at their own expense, to plots on the outskirts of Aweil that they must pay for. Deng says his family doesn’t have money to buy a new plot, and besides, he says, “it’s bad land that floods every rainy season. We just want to stay where we are.” If he does move to the new plots, Deng will find himself near the 11,000 (and counting) southerners who are camped out near town, waiting for the government to decide where exactly they can settle permanently. Over the past three weeks, these new arrivals have constructed a makeshift village, setting up tea stands and shisha parlors under trees and making do with 15-day rations provided to them by the World Food Program.
Sadly, South Sudanese people are accustomed to living their lives on the run. Millions of southerners fled their homes during the latest north-south civil war, escaping aerial raids by the northern Sudanese army or running from Khartoum-backed southern militias, who cleared vast swathes of territory to enable oil companies to begin exploiting the south’s significant reserves amid the chaos created by decades of near-continuous conflict.
The latest round of population movements and displacement is related to the south’s long-awaited and hard-won independence vote earlier this month. Last August, the Southern Sudanese government unveiled its ambitious plan to bring southerners living in northern Sudan home en masse in advance of the referendum. At that time, the southern ministry in charge of the effort said it would bring home 1.5 million southerners before the vote. United Nations agencies and aid groups that had assisted the return of more than 2 million southerners since the war ended in 2005 quietly began panicking at the prospect of such an enormous population influx during the run-up to the south’s independence vote. Aid workers and UN officials would speak at length off-the-record about their reticence to participate in a returns process that would inevitably be viewed as politically motivated by the Khartoum government and the international community, but most refused to discuss their concerns publicly.
The southern government did not succeed in bringing home as many of its people as it had hoped, but it did kickstart a mass population movement that is continuing in the aftermath of the vote, through both “assisted” (government-sponsored) and “spontaneous” migration by bus and barge. During the weeklong referendum, returnees were streaming into the south at a rate of more than 2,000 people per day. While the flows have decreased slightly in the past couple weeks, the new arrivals are placing enormous stress on “host communities” across the south, where the vast majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day and there is already not enough sorghum or greens to go around.
In urban centers like Aweil, which has only a few kilometers of paved roads, local government officials are struggling to plan for the arrival of thousands more of their people while hardly managing to keep up with the demands of providing basic services like water and electricity to the population. Santino Deng, who was himself a “returnee,” can understand why his fellow southerners want to come home to be part of the new nation of South Sudan, which will declare independence this July if all goes to plan. But he seems skeptical of his government’s ability to provide for all of its peoples. “We as the people don’t have any power,” he says. “It’s up to the government,” he concludes dejectedly, watching as his neighbors break down their huts and prepare for their next journey and perhaps more time on the run.