UNHCR resumes repatriation of Sudanese from Ethiopia's Bonga camp
BONGA, Ethiopia, December 14, (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has resumed the assisted repatriation of Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia with a first group of 500 leaving for their homeland earlier this week.
The end of the rainy season and swampy road conditions allowed the first refugee convoy since late May to leave Bonga camp, near Gambella in western Ethiopia, on Wednesday. It is due to cross into Sudan's Blue Nile state, through the crossing point of Kurmuk, on Saturday after an 820-kilometre-long journey.
"We had to take this long and tiring route because the other options are either not suitable or unsafe, or both," said Wella Kouyou, who oversees UNHCR operations in Bonga. "They spend the three nights in waystations," he added.
The latest convoy of buses and trucks was carrying refugees who had previously been declared medically unfit to travel. Many have since recovered and received authorisation to return home. Three more convoys, each carrying 500 people, are scheduled to be sent to Sudan from Bongo over the next two weeks.
"With the resumption of the return movement at this point in time, we, together with our partners ... expect to assist the return of more than 11,000 Sudanese refugees over the next six months," said Ilunga Ngandu, UNHCR's regional liaison representative for Africa.
Ngandu added that subject to the availability of adequate funding, logistical preparedness and absorption capacity in south Sudan, "We ultimately expect to help return the nearly 70,000 Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia during 2007, 2008." UNHCR launched its repatriation programme from Ethiopia in March and had sent some 2,500 Sudanese home by road from Bonga and another camp before the roads became impassable in late May.
More than 300 of Wednesday's returnees were aged under 18 years, which indicates that most were probably born and raised in Ethiopia. The main influx of southern Sudanese to Ethiopia came in 1987.
Samuel Nur was born in Sudan, but the 23-year-old was only an infant when his parents fled to Ethiopia in 1987 and his homeland should be as much of a mystery to him as to his four children. But he said that his parents had tried to keep him in touch with his roots during the years of exile. "So much so, that I feel like I had been there as a grown up," he said, adding that he had passed on his enthusiasm to his kids. "That's why they are now so happy to go home."
"I am happy to be going home at long last, though, and I must thank UNHCR and the Ethiopian people for hosting us all those years," said Taripcana Joseph, a Christian and a mother of four, who was also on the convoy.
Before leaving Bonga, a camp of 17,000 Sudanese refugees, the returnees received a reintegration package of blankets, jerry cans, sleeping mats, a water filter and a sanitary kit for girls and women.
They will receive further supplies at Kurmuk, including plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, plastic buckets, kitchen utensils and soap. Upon arrival in Sudan, a reintegration package comprising three months of food, seeds and agricultural tools will be provided by the World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Sudan's 21-year conflict ended in January last year when a peace agreement was concluded between the central government and rebel forces. UNHCR, together with other UN agencies and partner NGOs, has been struggling to lay the ground inside Sudan to receive returnees.
At the moment Ethiopia hosts close to 69,000 Sudanese refugees in five camps. The country also plays host to 16,387 and 12,444 refugees from Somalia and Eritrea respectively. Close to 700 others originating from 13 different countries also exist in the country.
More than 91,500 Sudanese refugees have returned home from neighbouring countries. Of this number, almost 20,000 went back with UNHCR assistance. An estimated 350,000 Sudanese refugees remain in exile.
By Kisut Gebre Egziabher in Bonga, Ethiopia