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Sudan's other crisis

A woman waiting in hope for food rations to be delivered to a refugee camp in southern Sudan.

SEAN SPRAGUE / Still Pictures / www.stillpictures.com

The turmoil in the Darfur region of west Sudan has received too little international attention. Yet the plight of the southerners has been neglected even more in recent months. In early July 2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was celebrating a ‘modest landmark’: the repatriation of 10,000 Sudanese refugees from neighbouring countries over a seven-month period.

Given that there are 340,000 more Sudanese refugees to be taken home, this may not sound like such a significant achievement. But to the UNHCR and anybody else who knows the headaches the exercise has encountered since its launch at the end of 2005, the progress is satisfactory.

The refugees are being repatriated after the war in southern Sudan, which lasted more than two decades and ended with a peace agreement last year. The war pitted the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – southern black Africans who are largely Christian – against the country’s Muslim rulers who kept the benefits of development concentrated in the north of the country. Wanting to impose sharia law on the rebelling southerners, the Government employed a scorched-earth policy that sent Sudan’s southern population streaming into neighbouring countries.

By April 2006, the UNHCR had secured only $8.6 million of its appeal for the $63.4 million that it believes is needed to repatriate and resettle southern refugees from the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Uganda. Lam Akol, Sudan’s foreign minister, says only a third of the funds donors pledged last year to enable the country’s post-war resettlement have been released.

This lack of commitment from the international community continues to hamper efforts to resettle both refugees living outside the country and the four million people that have been internally displaced by war. Uganda hosts 172,312 Sudanese refugees – the biggest concentration of Sudanese refugees among the countries offering asylum – but only 30,000 are registered for the journey back home. The target is to send home 5,000 of them this year.

Warrap State Governor Anei Kuei says: ‘Ours is a sea of problems. In my state alone, I have about 1.8 million people waiting to be reintegrated. How do I establish state machinery, provide a civilian livelihood for former soldiers, calm the volatile hostilities between some of our tribes? Where do I start?’

Those returning are facing uncertain futures. Some resettlement areas are still littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance. In addition, the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebels continue to reach into southern Sudan, killing civilians and looting property. Travelling in June with a UNHCR convoy for refugees from Uganda to Sudan, the mood was sombre. Here were people returning to their home after a decade or more with only a few bare necessities to enable them to start a new life. According to refugee James Kenyi, 34, whether or not his family will join him soon depends upon the reception he receives, the amenities in place like education and health institutions, and the opportunities to begin a new peaceful life. ‘We don’t know whether the people who are there will welcome us or not because everybody I knew fled from our village.’

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