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Sudanese refugees mull over peace talks at home

Sudanese refugees mull over peace talks at home

Peace talks in Sudan, set to resume on August 10, could eventually pave the way home for hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees. But while UNHCR and the other UN agencies prepare a contingency plan for possible returns, the mood is not hopeful among many Sudanese refugees in Uganda's camps.
8 August 2003
Sudanese refugees making music at Maaji camp in northern Uganda.

Editor's note: The Sudanese peace talks were delayed for a day and started on August 11.

KYANGWALI SETTLEMENT, Uganda, August 8 (UNHCR) - The news that peace talks on the future of Sudan are scheduled to resume on Sunday (August 10) has been met with a big yawn by some of the people whose lives will be most affected - Sudanese refugees now living in Uganda.

"I'm not aware of any peace talks," says Grace Amoo, a 30-year-old woman selling onions and dried fish in a market in the Kyangwali settlement in western Uganda, home to more than 10,000 Sudanese refugees. She has been a refugee for 10 years and has practically given up hope of seeing a peaceful end to the war that has wracked her homeland for the last 20 years.

In another refugee settlement, Maaji in northern Uganda, a young man who has spent most of his life in exile is similarly in the dark. "I have not been following the peace talks. I have no way to get information, no radio and no newspapers," says Isaac Taban, now 19 and a refugee since the age of five.

Some observers feel the Sudanese peace process has reached a "make or break" stage, with much speculation about whether there will be a peace deal hammered out soon between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Such a deal could conceivably pave the way for the estimated half a million refugees outside Sudan to go home. The talks, known as the Machakos Process, are to resume in Kenya.

Those refugees who are following the talks are pessimistic. "The peace process in Sudan, I am sure, is failing," says Peter Issara Lazarous, a primary school teacher in Kyangwali. "There's no hope for either side. Neither side is willing to come to an agreement."

Lazarous accuses Sudanese leaders on both sides of having lost sight of the interests of refugees like him. "The problem is, our people want peace, but the two sides don't want to come to a common understanding. The people who are fighting are killing the chances for peace."

But Ahmed Farah, UNHCR Representative in Khartoum, sees more hopeful signs. "We are all excited that the two parties have developed a Joint Planning Mechanism to be supported by the UN," he says. "This implies that for the first time technical people from both the North and the South will be sitting side by side reviewing all assistance measures targeted to the South."

The Northern part of Sudan is still under government control, while the SPLM/A controls the South, where most refugees will be returning when peace comes. The UN refugee agency and other UN agencies will work together on projects in the South to ensure than all returnees can reintegrate smoothly into life in Sudan.

With the prospect of technical meetings between North and South, "there is optimism that bringing the two parties together on a technical level may enhance confidence-building," Farah adds.

UNHCR, in cooperation with other UN agencies, is fine-tuning a contingency plan for facilitating the return of 100,000 refugees from neighbouring countries in case a peace agreement is actually signed. The agency is also setting up a unit in Juba, southern Sudan, and listening posts at designated entry points in order to respond if refugees begin to return "spontaneously" on their own, without waiting for an organised repatriation.

"One thing is clear," says Farah. "Regardless of the ups and downs in the peace discussions, we ought to be prepared to provide assistance when the time comes. This is an essential part of UNHCR's approach to its work."

Sudanese refugees in the Uganda settlements remain to be convinced, though. "I don't have any hopes of going home to Sudan," says 69-year-old Prerina Acii in Kyangwali. "I will die in this country [Uganda]."

Then adds thoughtfully: "Maybe my children will get to go home to Sudan after I die."

By Kitty McKinsey in Kyangwali and Maaji, Uganda