Thousands of exhausted South Sudanese return home, fleeing brutal conflict
RENK, South Sudan — Tens of thousands of exhausted people are heading home to the world’s youngest country as they flee brutal conflict in neighboring Sudan.
There is a bottleneck of men, women and children camping near the dusty border of Sudan and South Sudan and the international community and the government are worried about a prolonged conflict.
Fighting between the Sudanese army and a rival militia has killed at least 863 civilians in Sudan before the start of a seven-day ceasefire on Monday evening. Many in South Sudan worry about what could happen if the fighting next door continues.
“After escaping danger, there is more violence,” said South Sudanese Alwel Ngok, sitting on the ground outside a church. “There’s no food, no shelter, we’re totally stuck, and I’m very tired and have to go,” she said.
Ngok believed she would be safe to return home after fleeing clashes in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, where she saw three of her relatives killed. She and her five children arrived in Renk, South Sudan, where people were sheltering on the ground, some sleeping with their luggage piled near thin mats. The women prepared the food in large pots while the teenagers wandered aimlessly. A few days after Ngok and his family arrived, she said, a man was beaten to death with sticks in a fight that started with an argument over water.
Years of fighting between government and opposition forces in South Sudan killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions until a peace deal was signed nearly five years ago . The enactment of a solid peace has been slow: the country has yet to deploy a unified army and create a permanent constitution.
Large-scale clashes between major parties have calmed down, but there is still fighting in some parts of the country.
South Sudan has billions in oil reserves which it transports to international markets through a pipeline that crosses Sudan into territories controlled by the warring parties. If that pipeline is damaged, South Sudan’s economy could collapse within months, said International Crisis Group researcher Ferenc David Marko.
However, the most immediate concern is the tens of thousands of South Sudanese returning without knowing how they will get back to their towns and villages. Many cannot afford the trip. Aid groups and the government are stretched for resources they can use to help.
Some 50,000 people passed through the border town of Renk, many of them sheltering in wooden shacks along the road and in government buildings throughout the town. Some wander aimlessly in the market, desperately asking strangers how to get home. People arrive faster than they can be taken to new places.
The longer they stay, the greater the risk of fighting between the communities, many of which have long-standing grievances stemming from the civil war. Many are frustrated because they don’t know what to expect.
The power struggle in South Sudan between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, took on an ethnic dimension during the civil war. Communities in Renk said the conflict that erupted over water in May and led to the killing of the man with sticks quickly escalated into a wider conflict between ethnic groups, forcing people to flee again.
At first, the local government wanted to divide the returning South Sudanese by Renk, according to where they came from. Aid groups, however, pushed back. With government and community leaders, aid groups engage in peace dialogues.
“We are worried (about more violence),” said Yohannes William, the chairman of the humanitarian arm of the Upper Nile state government. “The services that (are) provided here are limited. We were told that this is a transit center, anyone who comes must stay there for two or three days and then transit.
“But now, unfortunately, due to the transport delay, they’ve been there for over two weeks, three weeks,” William said.
Located at the northern end of South Sudan, Renk is connected to other parts of the country by a few roads. The main routes are flights or boat trips along the Nile, and many people cannot afford these.
The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration is trying to send back the most vulnerable South Sudanese who have returned home – some 8,000 people – by boat, aiming to transport nearly 1,000 people a day along the Nile to the state capital, Malakal. However, the journeys have only just begun and coordination problems between aid groups and the government at the port this month have delayed people’s departure, with children, babies and the sick camped out by empty boats for days under the hot sun.
Aid workers say it could take up to two months to decongest the town, which has nearly doubled in size. But Malakal already hosts some 44,000 displaced people in a UN protection camp, many of whom are still too afraid to leave for security reasons.
“The problem is an ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ conundrum, because we are transferring them to Malakal, and Malakal is congested herself,” said Nicholas Haysom, the UN chief in South Sudan, at the Associated Press.
Some who have already returned to Malakal from Sudan say they do not know if there is a home to return to, having had no contact with their families during the civil war.
“I don’t know if my relatives are dead or alive,” William Deng said. The 33-year-old has not been able to speak to his family in neighboring Jonglei state, which has few telephone services, since his return in early May.
The government says it has funding for 10 charter planes to ferry people from Renk to parts of the country that are harder to reach by boat. But Renk’s small airport cannot accommodate large planes, so each flight can only hold 80 people.
“The situation is dire… (South Sudan) is now forced to take in additional refugees and returnees. As a result, humanitarian needs in the country will continue to grow,” said Michael Dunford, East Africa Regional Director for the World Food Programme.
Even before this crisis, 70% of the population needed humanitarian aid and the World Food Program cannot meet their needs, he said.
Traders in Renk, who get the majority of their goods from Sudan, say they are already feeling the economic pain, with prices soaring 70%.
“Before, I sent $100 a week to my family. Now I send half,” said Adam Abdalla Hassan.
The Sudanese shop owner supports his family in Sudan, but now earns less because people don’t have enough money, he said.
Those who have returned say they have been given little information on where and how they are expected to return home, and fear they may not arrive in time before the rainy weather, which is beginning soon, floods the roads and renders the flight more difficult.
“How can we stay here in the rain with the children? says Ehlam Saad. Holding her UN-issued bracelet, the 42-year-old said she had been living in Renk for nearly three weeks. She does not know how she will arrive in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, where she and her family lived before the war. Her only choice now is to find a way to return home and reunite with her husband and son, she said.
“A house is a house. Even if there’s fighting, even if you move around the world, even if it’s the worst option, it’s your home,” she said.