Sudanese repatriation from Uganda gathers pace
NIMULE, Sudan, August 17 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has stepped up the pace of Sudanese refugee returns from Uganda by opening a major new corridor to Eastern Equatoria state in South Sudan. Close to 50 per cent of the 160,000 Sudanese refugees living in a string of 11 camps in Uganda are from Eastern Equatoria.
A first convoy carrying 133 Sudanese refugees from Kyangwali and Kyriandongo camps in Uganda's Hoima district arrived last Wednesday in Nimule, a border town on the southern tip of Sudan's border with Uganda.
"I can't wait to be home. We hope the peace [in Sudan] will last," Jessica Achiro, a 45-year-old mother of seven told UNHCR staff in Gulu, northern Uganda, during a brief stopover for the return convoy on its two-day journey.
The introduction of a third corridor from Uganda to South Sudan was agreed on at a meeting in Kampala last May between UNHCR and the governments of Uganda and Sudan amid improving security on both sides of the border. With the additional return route now open, UNHCR expects growing numbers of Sudanese to opt for return this year.
"People [in the convoy] were very happy to be back," said Chris Hamm, head of the UNHCR team in the town of Nimule, which is located in Magwi County. "Many of them are Acholis who have suffered LRA [Lord's Resistance Army] attacks in Uganda, but they were upbeat and seemed confident of their safety," he added, referring to a rebel group based in northern Uganda.
Until recently, UNHCR was not able to operate in Magwi due to LRA activities in the area. Since the mid-1990s, the LRA has also been active in Eastern Equatoria. From there they terrorized villagers in Uganda and Sudan, abducted residents and regularly ambushed vehicles travelling from northern Uganda to Juba in South Sudan.
But security has improved following an LRA withdrawal from the area several months ago, boosting the confidence of refugees thinking of returning to Sudan.
"Since March this year, no security incident attributed to LRA or other armed groups has been reported in Nimule or Magwi. Many of the displaced people have started to return to their villages," Hamm noted. "We feel that the situation is gradually conducive for repatriation."
With improved security, UNHCR and its implementing partner GTZ have established a transit centre in the bustling border town of Nimule to support the repatriation process through the new corridor.
"Reception in Nimule is just the first step. Few refugees are returning to Nimule. Many are continuing further north to Magwi and Torit counties. We have opened a second reception centre in the town of Magwi," Hamm said, while noting that people were willingly returning to areas with few services and poor infrastructure.
UNHCR plans to work with non-governmental organizations to launch water, health, education and income generation projects in areas of high return.
"We are happy that we are finally able to return home. We hear that there is still no water and the roads are not ready, but still home is best," said 25-year-old John Oling. He left his wife and three children in Kyangwali camp in Uganda but expects them to join him in Magwi later in the year.
John Odek, who was travelling with his 17-year-old son, said his relatives in Magwi had written to say there was nothing to fear. "They told me the security was good and there were no ethnic tensions here."
Many of the returnees have harrowing tales to tell. Night Achola, a young mother of 16 years who fled South Sudan aged three, was returning to live with her brother. Her father was killed fighting for rebel forces in South Sudan while her mother was murdered by the LRA. But Achola is thinking big, hoping to improve her English, take a computer course and become a secretary.
Some 157,000 Sudanese refugees have so far returned to South Sudan and Blue Nile state since the launch of voluntary repatriation to Sudan in December 2005. Of this number, some 66,500 returned home with UNHCR assistance from five countries bordering southern Sudan - the Central Africa Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.