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Sudanese refugees rejoice over peace prospects at home


Sudanese refugees rejoice over peace prospects at home

Many of the 60,000 Sudanese refugees at Kenya's Kakuma camp danced and cheered when they heard about a breakthrough peace accord that could help them go home eventually. Some want to return immediately, others are more cautious.
28 May 2004
Income-generating projects like this handicraft workshop in Kenya's Kakuma camp will help prepare Sudanese refugees for home.

KAKUMA, Kenya, May 28 (UNHCR) - The slaughterhouse in this small dusty town in north-western Kenya was doing a booming business Friday morning.

Sudanese refugees at UNHCR's nearby refugee camp were buying up bulls to roast in celebration of a breakthrough peace accord that may eventually help them go home after 21 years of civil war in their homeland.

For two nights after the signing of the three protocols in the Kenyan town of Naivasha on Wednesday night, Kakuma camp reverberated to the sounds of dancing and cheering as many of the 60,000 Sudanese refugees living there merrily celebrated their prospects of seeing south Sudan once again.

Throughout Kakuma camp, Sudanese refugees were glued to international television stations - in both English and Arabic - and the BBC World Service (radio) in English. They cheered when they heard John Garang, leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement, describe the three protocols as the last hurdle before a comprehensive peace deal between his side and the Khartoum government.

Refugees were able to quote Garang's comments almost verbatim: "We have reached the crest of the last hill in our tortuous ascent to the heights of peace," the rebel leader had said. "There are no more hills ahead of us, the remaining is flat ground."

Gai Chaw, a 21-year-old refugee, enthused during a break from his basketball game, "When the whole peace process started in 2002, I was very happy and when I listened to Mr Garang's speech, I felt like I want to go home. If UNHCR tells me to go today I will go today."

The UN refugee agency will not "tell" any refugees to go home. But it has been preparing since late last year to begin moving refugees within six months after any final peace accord is signed - if the refugees themselves want to go and conditions inside Sudan are safe for their return. UNHCR estimates that some 150,000 refugees - out of 500,000 now outside the country - could go home in the first 18 months after a final peace accord.

The three protocols signed in Naivasha resolved the last remaining issues - power-sharing and how to administer three disputed areas in central Sudan - needed to end Africa's longest-running war. "I hope it will translate into peace," said Chaw.

UNHCR has welcomed the accords as "a very encouraging and positive step" that could lead to the return of nearly four million uprooted Sudanese to their homes. They include 500,000 refugees, mostly in neighbouring countries, and more than three million people displaced within Sudan.

On Thursday, the refugee agency began a month-long formal registration of Sudanese refugees in Kakuma in preparation for an eventual repatriation to south Sudan. The registration is collecting data on where refugees come from, where they would like to return, and when they would like to go.

Sudan has been at war for most of the last 50 years, and has seen many hopes for peace dashed, so some refugees were understandably cautious about hailing the latest framework accord as a genuine breakthrough.

"People always celebrate and celebrate when signatures are put on paper, but at the end of the day, nothing comes of it," said Deng Ajeth, a 23-year-old man from the Nuer tribe.

The latest civil war has pitted the Arab Muslim northern government against rebels representing diverse non-Muslim ethnic groups in the south. Reflecting the deep and bitter divisions left by the war, Ajeth added, "I'll only pack my bags if I am assured the country is divided into two, one side for the Arabs and one side for the blacks."

Gideon Kenyi, a 47-year-old refugee spokesman, has been buffeted by all the upheavals that have convulsed Sudan. He was first sent into exile as a boy in the 1960s, then worked for the government, and was later arrested by that same government before fleeing his homeland once again.

He says rifts will remain not only between the north and the south, but between refugees who fled and Sudanese who remained inside their country. "People who go back from Kakuma are likely to be viewed as cowards by those who stayed," said Kenyi, who works in a peace and reconciliation programme for Sudanese refugees sponsored by Lutheran World Federation.

And he points out that while southern Sudanese from the Dinka tribe represented by Garang are eager to return home, people from certain parts of the south are less keen.

"The urge for Equatorians to go back is very low compared to other ethnic groups because our land has been taken," said Kenyi. "We came from a very fertile area and now the land is occupied by people who moved from other parts of the country. We can only go back if we are sure our land will be given back to us."

Mary Bosko, a 47-year-old mother of four, is also from Equatoria province, and says each side in the civil war sees people from this region as enemy spies or collaborators. She said she herself was arrested twice on spying charges - once by the Khartoum government and once by Garang's forces, the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

Her family has been scattered by the long-running war - her husband shot dead, two sons in a refugee settlement in Uganda, and two others resettled in Australia. Now she wants to go to Uganda to fetch her teenage boys and take them to Australia to join their brothers.

Many Sudanese refugees at Kakuma take the opportunity to study while in exile.

With the infrastructure of south Sudan destroyed by decades of war and neglect, UNHCR will have to work with sister UN agencies and non-governmental organisations to build roads and water points, and start services like heath centres and schools.

The Sudanese prize education highly, and for many of them, their time in a refugee camp has been an opportunity to get schooling they couldn't receive at home.

Ajeth is a student at a secondary school in Kakuma, but he wouldn't be fussy about conditions at home if he decided to go back to south Sudan. "I was born under a tree, so I can learn under a tree," he said.