UNHCR resumes refugee returns from Kenya to South Sudan
KAPOETA, Sudan, December 12 (UNHCR) - The last time Lohuyoro Robert was in South Sudan his parents were so concerned about his safety - and their own - that he was never allowed to go outside his home unless he was in a car.
Last week, the 22-year-old returned for the first time since fleeing conflict eight years ago and finding refuge across the border in north-west Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp. "Now I have the freedom to roam far," Lohuyoro told UNHCR staff at the Kapoeta way station in Eastern Equatoria en route to his village.
Eastern Equatoria was one of the hardest hit states during the 21-year-long North-South civil war that ravaged southern areas until the signing of a peace pact in January 2005. But the state bordering Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda is now one of the highest return areas in the south.
UNHCR launched its assisted repatriation programme for South Sudan in December 2005 and an estimated 290,000 people have since returned from Kenya and other neighbouring countries. The refugee agency has helped almost 140,000 of them to return, including 45,000 to Eastern Equatoria.
The return rate picked up earlier this year before UNHCR suspended returns in July, when the rainy season began. The operation resumed last month and Lohuyoro was on the second convoy from Kakuma of the 2008-2009 dry season, which will last until June. Many areas are inaccessible during the rains.
Next year, UNHCR plans to put even more effort and funding into projects aimed at easing the reintegration of the returnees in South Sudan, where infrastructure and services were devastated by the years of conflict and neglect. The agency has implemented more than 680 reintegration projects since 2005, including vocational training, rehabilitation and construction of schools and health centres and drilling of water wells.
"We should do more in terms of putting reintegration programmes in place," said Gideon Kenyi Patrick, a field assistant at UNHCR's Kapoeta office. "Villages in Eastern Equatoria still lack primary health care units and schools. More needs to be done so that returnees stay and build their communities, rather than move on to seek opportunities elsewhere."
This suits people like Lohuyoro who wish to contribute to the rebuilding of the country. "I want to help in the development [of South Sudan] for the coming generations," he said after getting off the bus that brought him here on December 3 with 77 other returnees. Lohuyoro, who studied for a degree while in Kenya, wants to get involved in water management.
The returnees who pass through Kapoeta are provided by UNHCR and its sister agencies with food and non-food items such as blankets, jerry cans, kitchen sets, mosquito nets, sanitary goods and agricultural tools and seed. They also attend mine awareness sessions before they are transported to their home villages.
The UN refugee agency is expecting another flood of returnees now that the dry season has returned and the dirt roads are firm and navigable. "There are still many refugees in Kakuma and Uganda and we are expecting more returnees," said UNHCR's Patrick.
In fact, UNHCR plans to repatriate 54,000 refugees from various countries next year after assisting more than 60,000 to return home in 2008.
By Kazuhiko Shimizu in Kapoeta, Sudan