Hopes dashed, S Sudanese return to refugee life

2014-01-27 09:14
Displaced South Sudanese citizens wait at a Sudanese border checkpoint in Joda, where Sudan's White Nile state meets the South's Upper Nile, after fleeing battles between rebel and government forces. (Ashraf Shazly, AFP)

Displaced South Sudanese citizens wait at a Sudanese border checkpoint in Joda, where Sudan's White Nile state meets the South's Upper Nile, after fleeing battles between rebel and government forces. (Ashraf Shazly, AFP)

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Adjumani - Citizens of the world's youngest nation South Sudan, born less than three years ago with such high hopes, leave their now war-torn homeland for neighbouring Uganda, many saying they will not return.

"I don't want to go back, I have seen a lot problems," said Arac Magok, a 31-year old refugee from Bor, a town devastated by the six-week long conflict, with clashes still reported between rebels and government forces on Sunday, despite a ceasefire deal signed three days before.

In Bor, civilians were massacred, scores of houses were razed to the ground and stores looted, with the town swapping hands four times, forcing almost all its population to flee, or crowd into the shelter of a United Nations peacekeeping base.

Trekking first on foot, then paying extortionate fees for a space on much in demand transport, she and her family are - for now at least - setting up a new home in northern Uganda as refugees.

South Sudanese are used to war, with their fledgling nation choosing to become independent in July 2011, following a referendum set up as part of a peace deal that ended over two decades of civil war with the Sudanese government in Khartoum.

Many grew up as refugees from a united Sudan, but are now returning to a life outside their homeland, as refugees from South Sudan.

People here are too scared to remain at home, with over 700 000 displaced in South Sudan and over 112 000 refugees running to neighbouring nations, more than half of those southwards here to Uganda.

'Peace will take time'

"I will stay in Uganda until the problems stop," Magok said, arriving in the rapidly growing Adjumani refugee camp, where rows and rows of plastic tents are being erected to offer some shelter from the baking heat, just across the border from their troubled nation.

"Peace does not come in one day, it will take time," she added, as she unloaded bags from a pickup truck, then stopping in surprise as she embraced a relative in joy.

Many of the refugees said gunmen had torched their homes, and then stole their crops and cattle.

Mass killings and rape have also been reported.

"People are coming from very far away, and what they're saying is that everything back home has been destroyed, the houses have been burned to the ground, their crops and cattle have been taken," said Lucy Beck, of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

"They have so little to return for."

The fragile ceasefire, with both sides trading accusations that each had breached the deal by attacking the other, has given little confidence to the refugees.

More are expected to yet come.

"There are still many pockets of people that have not be able to reach Uganda yet," Beck said, adding that UNHCR were still preparing for possibly as many as 100 000 refugees to flood into Uganda.

Thousands have been killed in the violence, which has seen waves of brutal revenge attacks, as fighters and ethnic militia use the chaos to loot and settle old scores.

Tough conditions

"The number of refugees is still growing," Fredericke Dumont, head doctor in the camp with the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). "This is quite alarming, because it shows the situation in South Sudan is not improving."

Far from dreaming of a return to their new nation, refugees instead appear more anxious to be transferred to a more permanent settlement in Uganda.

Refugees in Uganda "receive a plot of land where they can build a house, have a little garden", Beck said. "There is access to water and health care".

But conditions are still tough, especially in the transit camps where those arriving first stay.

"Our life is so hard here. Since we came here, we are confined in one place," Magok added. "People depend on the porridge that is given out, but there are also shortages of that."

The poorest are also some of the last to arrive as they have made large parts of the journey on foot.

"Some are still coming, but the problem is some do not have transport, no food... so this is what is making it hard," said Joseph Alehu Gabriel, a priest who also fled Bor.

He walked for more than a 100km through the bush to the capital Juba, before being lucky enough to be given a lift in a car to Uganda.

"You see my feet? I was footing (walking) without shoes," Gabriel said, showing his feet with sores.

Read more on:    uganda  |  south sudan  |  refugees  |  east africa
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