Refugees returning to southern Sudan face enormous challenges

News Stories, 1 December 2006

© UNHCR/M.Mutuli
The children at Sare Goro Primary school in Kajo Keji have no desks or chairs. A grant from the Gates Foundation will help to refurbish education facilities in southern Sudan.

KAJO KEIJI, Sudan, December 1 (UNHCR) Someday, 15-year-old Esther Poni hopes she'll finally be able to leave her empty red paint can at home. But until money is found, Esther's bucket will have to serve as her school bench.

Next to her, David Wani sits on a low, home-made stool and uses his lap as a desk. Their school, Sare Goro Primary in Kajo Keji, South Sudan, has no desks or chairs for its 400 pupils, all of whom are crammed into small, poorly lit classrooms. Outside, under the shade of two big trees, eager preschoolers perch on logs and stones earnestly reciting the English alphabet.

Many of the children at Sare Goro are former refugees who have returned to southern Sudan from settlements in northern Uganda's Adjumani district. UNHCR estimates that since last year, nearly 90,000 Sudanese refugees have returned to various parts of South Sudan from neighbouring countries. Of this number, more than 17,000 have returned with UNHCR's assistance.

But there are still some 350,000 refugees outside South Sudan waiting to go home, as well as an estimated 4 million internally displaced people. Many of them cite the lack of schools, water, sanitation, health care and other infrastructure for their reluctance to return to Sudan after 21 years of civil war. Without these basics, there is no guarantee that those refugees who go home will be able to rebuild their lives.

More help from the international community is crucial in bridging the gap between repatriation and long-term reconstruction and development in post-conflict South Sudan. A new, US$10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced today, is part of that effort.

The grant will cover three main sectors basic health care, education, and water and sanitation in Western, Central and Eastern Equatoria states as well as the Upper Nile. A series of community-based reintegration projects focusing on each sector will benefit 210,000 refugee returnees as well as some 200,000 internally displaced people going back to their home villages.

"Equipping these communities early on with basic essentials such as clean water and sanitation, schools and health care helps ensure that those who are going home can stay home," said High Commissioner António Guterres in welcoming the Gates Foundation announcement.

UNHCR will work with its United Nations and non-governmental organisation partners as well as local communities in implementing the projects, helping to ensure that returning refugees like Esther, David and their families can overcome the many hardships they will face in rebuilding their lives.

Esther's maths teacher, Lodu Amin, was also a refugee in Uganda before he returned home early this year and offered to join the school's teaching staff of 13. But, like most of the school's teachers, he is neither trained nor regularly paid.

"Even though we are not paid, I decided to help our community since there are no teachers," said 22-year-old Amin, who completed his secondary school education in Uganda. Less than 10 per cent of the teachers in Kajo Keji county are trained. With more funding for its programmes in South Sudan, UNHCR will be able to provide basic furniture to schools like Sare Goro Primary, and train more teachers for scores of schools that have recently enrolled returnees.

Not far from Sare Goro is the Pamoju all-girls boarding school, built and furnished by UNHCR. The refugee agency is not a development agency and does not have the resources or capacity to build schools across southern Sudan. But the availability of educational facilities is crucial in every refugee parent's decision on when to return home.

Like pupils in Sare Goro primary school, the majority of girls at Pamoju are returned refugees. The new school gave impetus to many families to return home. In Yei, another Sudanese town close to the border with Uganda, the magnet was the improvement of Yei hospital by UNHCR.

"The population in Yei has grown noticeably in the last year," said Zephania Amuiri, a programme officer in UNHCR's office in the town. "There are more people in the streets and, for the first time, roadside traders."

The office in Yei has overseen the construction or repair of 85 water wells in surrounding counties to ensure adequate water for communities which are receiving returnees.The water points have encouraged refugees to return home.

In July last year, UNHCR sank a borehole in Sirimon village, some 50 kms north of the town of Juba. Soon after, more than 4,000 internally displaced Sudanese walked back home. But Sirimon has no school and the returnees there are appealing for help to build a primary school. The village elders say the community will prepare the bricks and build the school, but they need help with tools and building materials. Other communities in the area have put up rudimentary structures to ensure children do not miss school.

Esther, David and their eager classmates squatting in the dust at Sare Goro Primary and other schools across the region are all testimony to the value placed on education by South Sudanese as they struggle to build a better future for their devastated homeland.

By Millicent Mutuli in Kajo Keiji, Sudan