UNHCR-organised repatriation to South Sudan starts
NADAPAL, South Sudan, December 19 (UNHCR) - A white bull was slaughtered, children sang and danced, women ululated and men pounded drums in celebration as a group of South Sudanese refugees went home over the weekend in the first UNHCR-organized repatriation for those who fled Sudan's 21-year-long civil war.
"This is a joyous day, the day we welcome refugees home from exile after decades of war," a representative of the government of South Sudan said at a ceremony on Saturday in Nadapal, just inside South Sudan on the Kenyan border, where local residents waved paper flags of what they call "New Sudan" to welcome their kinfolk home.
He was speaking to 64 Sudanese refugees who came by bus from Kakuma Refugee Camp in north-western Kenya, headed for villages near Kapoeta and Chukudum in Eastern Equatoria. The UN refugee agency flew another 67 refugees to Bor, in Jongley State, on two aircraft on Saturday. It was a long, tiring journey for all 131 refugees - most were still on the move towards their final destinations as of Monday morning.
Referring to the small number on this first repatriation, UNHCR's director of Sudan operations, Jean-Marie Fakhouri, said "you could say it's a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of thousands of refugees in neighbouring countries, not forgetting the millions of internally displaced persons in Khartoum and the South who would like to come home. But a drop in the ocean can be the start of a tsunami," he added. "Today the message will go out to everyone that maybe we should start thinking about going home now."
Osfaldo, a 25-year-old father of two children who were born in Kakuma, took his family home on the first convoy to Kapoeta. "Sudan is our country," he explained, as his wife tended to their fretting baby. "I think life will be difficult, but I want to go back to my place and live there."
As a mason, Osfaldo thinks he will manage to make a living out of the expected housing boom as more and more South Sudanese come home from exile.
Riek Machar, vice-president of South Sudan, praised refugees like Osfaldo for bringing home important skills - learned in exile - to help rebuild the war-ravaged country.
"The skills you are bringing will make us overcome the difficulties we see today," Machar said in his welcoming speech at the Nadapal ceremony. He admitted South Sudan lacks many of the services refugees received in Kakuma, such as schools, health centres and clean water.
The UN refugee agency, along with other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, has been working since the signing of the peace accord in January, 2005, to prepare communities in the south to receive the 550,000 refugees who have sought shelter in seven neighbouring countries, as well as about four million displaced within Sudan. The UN refugee agency has built or rebuilt schools, hospitals, vocational training centres and water points to help entire communities, not just the returnees.
"Now we feel ready to offer refugees who want to return, the full range of services," Fakhouri said. He stressed that UNHCR is not yet encouraging refugees to go home, but is sending the message: "there is a new government in Khartoum, there is a new government in Juba. They should at least think about returning."
At the send-off ceremony in Kakuma, Kenya's Immigration Minister Gideon Koncellah assured the nearly 72,000 Sudanese refugees remaining in the camp that "the Kenyan government is not forcing anyone out of Kenya. We are simply witnessing the desire of many to go back home."
Indeed, many Sudanese refugees in Kakuma expressed impatience for UNHCR to organize transport to their home areas as well.
"As soon as possible, we want to go back to Bahr el Gazal. Sudan is my country; it's not somebody else's country, so I should be the first to go," said Akwei, an 18-year-old orphan who has spent more than half his life in Kakuma with his five brothers.
Fakhouri pledged that UNHCR will expand the areas to which it is assisting returns. The fact that the first organized return took place from Kenya was symbolic, many speakers said Saturday, because Kenya was an important driving force behind the peace accord - signed in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on 9 January 2005 - that ended the 21-year civil war.
Next month, Fakhouri pledged, UNHCR plans to start bringing refugees home to South Sudan from the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also said some 18,000 Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia have asked UNHCR to take them home, which it plans to do early in 2006.
The refugees who headed home on Saturday took with them their precious possessions - mattresses, corrugated metal roofing and bicycles - in addition to blankets, tarpaulins, jerry cans, cooking sets and other items given to them by UNHCR to help them re-establish their lives at home.
The UN's World Food Programme gave them two weeks' supply of food, and is distributing another three-month supply inside South Sudan. Returnees will then be offered the chance to work on community projects to get another three-month supply of food from WFP.
Many of the families who headed home on Saturday's repatriation left relatives back in Kakuma camp. Koncellah, the Kenyan immigration minister, promised that the Kenyan government was setting up a new immigration office to make it easier for South Sudanese to come back and see loved ones in Kenya.
"Come back not as a refugee," he invited, "but as a free Sudanese citizen."
By Kitty McKinsey in Kakuma, Kenya, and Nadapal, South Sudan