Sudanese refugees welcome peace agreement with song and dance
NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan. 10 (UNHCR) - Cheered by the official end to more than 21 years of civil war, hundreds of Sudanese refugees broke into song and dance in a Nairobi stadium Sunday, as the Khartoum government and southern rebels put their signatures to a comprehensive peace agreement.
"I now believe that God has not forgotten Sudan," refugee Said Majok said as tears of joy flowed down his face. Sudanese refugees at the ceremony in Nairobi's Nyayo National Stadium, many of them decked out in traditional Sudanese costumes adorned with ostrich feathers, had made their way to the stadium at dawn and waited patiently in the sun for hours to watch Sudan's Vice President Ali Osman Taha and Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) leader John Garang sign the agreement.
Sudanese men burst into chants, while women ululated with joy. Refugees waved flags and danced; young men staged mock fights to celebrate the end of the real fighting that has claimed an estimated two million lives, including many deaths from starvation.
The comprehensive peace agreement paves the way for more than three million people displaced within Sudan - as well as more than 500,000 refugees in neighbouring countries - to go home.
"This is the happiest day of my life," said James Alier, a 58-year-old Sudanese refugee from Upper Nile. "I have not been to my country for more than 10 years and now it is time for me to go."
Refugees cheered loudly as Garang told them: "There will be no more bombs falling from the sky on innocent women and children."
Although the signing ceremony in the Kenyan capital was carried live on both Kenyan television and Sudanese television, some refugees made the trek from Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya to witness it for themselves.
"I have come all the way from Kakuma to see with my own eyes," said Gideon Kenyi, a Sudanese refugee from Equatoria. "I do not want anybody to tell me what's going on," he added with a smile.
In Kakuma itself, home to some 65,000 Sudanese refugees, the peace breakthrough - the results of long years of talks in Kenya - was celebrated with lively music.
UNHCR was represented at the Nairobi signing ceremony by Jean-Marie Fakhouri, UNHCR's Director of Operations for the Sudan Situation, Eddie Gedalof, UNHCR Deputy Representative in Kenya and Mohamed Dualeh, head of the South Sudan Liaison Unit in Nairobi.
"It was exciting to see the joy of the Sudanese people at the ceremony," said Gedalof. "We hope that with the conclusion of the peace process, conditions will be created on the ground so that we are able to help the refugees return to their homes in safety and dignity."
Added Fakhouri: "We hope that the hundreds of thousands displaced by decades of conflict will be able to return to their communities and, together with relatives and former neighbours, rebuild their lives and plan for the future."
Acknowledging that returnees will face many challenges, Fakhouri pledged that "UNHCR will be by their side to assist with not only with their return in safety and dignity, but also with their reintegration into Sudan."
The UN refugee agency has long had plans in place for the voluntary return of 150,000 refugees in the first 18 months of peace, with the eventual return of the entire half million. The largest group of refugees from southern Sudan - some 223,000 - is in Uganda. Another 88,000 refugees are in Ethiopia; 69,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; 65,000 in Kenya; an estimated 36,000 in the Central African Republic; and 30,000 in Egypt.
In South Sudan, UNHCR has opened offices in Rumbek, Juba and Yei to begin laying the groundwork for refugee return. Working with partners, the refugee agency has started rehabilitating community health centres, schools and water and sanitation facilities in areas where refugees may return to increase the communities' capacity to cope with and reintegrate returning refugees.
UNHCR estimates that it will need some $60 million for the return and reintegration of Sudanese refugees to Southern Sudan in 2005 alone. At a press briefing in Geneva last week, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond noted that UNHCR's programmes in southern Sudan "have been drastically under-funded - of the $29.7 million we requested from donors in 2004, we received only $6.1 million. Significant funds are urgently needed to enable our efforts to move forward," he added.
The peace agreement signed Sunday does not cover the conflict in Sudan's western province of Darfur, where some 1.6 million people are internally displaced and another 200,000 have fled across the border as refugees in Chad.
By Emmanuel Nyabera in Nairobi, Kenya