In their hundreds of thousands they crossed the border, arriving by boat, bus or on foot. After decades of civil war with the north, South Sudanese have come back home to witness the birth of their new nation. The fight for independence has come to an end, but for many returnees, the struggle is far from over. 

Sources: Inter Press Service, ALMA Magazine and INSP, 7 July 2011

On the western outskirts of the South Sudanese capital of Juba some two dozen people have gathered in the local chief’s compound. It is a very hot day, the sun is unforgiving and people crowd around the one big tree in the yard to get some shade. Plastic chairs are brought in for the men, most of the women and children sit down on a large, woven mat on the floor. They come together regularly, to support each other and discuss their future. Some have come back here months ago, others just arrived. Wherever they have come from, one thing is the same for all of them: they have to rebuild their lives.

Seven page long cover story of Swiss magazine Surprise, 29 July 2011.

Cover story  over seven pages in Swiss magazine Surprise, July 2011.

Even before the referendum in January, in which 99.7 percent of Christian and animist southerners voted for separation from the Islamic north, hundreds of families came back to the south each day. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 by the Khartoum government and the southern forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), had convinced many that freedom was near. Decades of bloody civil war cost 2 million lives and left millions more displaced. With the signing of the CPA, the desire to go back to the land they fled for many became too strong to ignore.

Recognising the huge logistical task ahead, the UN Refugee Council set up a support system for South Sudanese wishing to return home. Registration offices were opened and ships, trucks and buses put in place to move people and luggage. At the receiving end, in Juba and other towns across the south, a massive emergency programme was rolled out by the World Food Programme and other charities to supply returnees with basic items like food, cooking utensils and soap.

“My dream was always to go back to Juba. I knew it was my home.”

Many of the early returnees belonged to families who had been out for decades. Like Richard Luka (32), who came back in 2006. His father had left Juba in the seventies as a bachelor, to find work in the northern capital Khartoum. He got married and had children, whom he managed to send to school with money he earned as a tailor. When the second civil war broke out in 1983 he lost hope that his offspring would ever be able to see their homeland.

For young Richard, life in the north was marked by the desire for a place he had never seen. Growing up in Khartoum, he lived between two worlds. In school, he spoke Arabic like the other children and tried to blend in. At home, the family spoke their mother tongue, Bari, to keep their southern spirit alive. “My parents used to tell us all about Juba. Whenever they saw it on television, they would call us over. It looked so beautiful to me. My dream was always to go back there. I knew it was my home.”

In 1995, there was intense fighting in the area around Juba. Images of soldiers in battle were shown on the military programme the family always watched on TV. Seeing his home town being attacked sparked a form of patriotism inside Richard that he had not felt so strong before. “Me and my brother said to my father: Dad, can we go fight?, but he refused to let us go. He said: Finish your school first. Then you can go and fight for your country.”

When SPLM leader John Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005 – just months after the peace agreement-, the mood in the Luka household became tense. “We were worried. We had a chief who looked after us, but who would protect the south now he was dead?”

The story featured in The Big Issue Japan magazine, August 2011.

The story featured in The Big Issue Japan magazine, August 2011.

In the following months, father Luka prepared his family to return to their home land. After a three week wait in the harbour town of Kosti, they were allowed to board a UN-chartered steam ship that would take them to Juba. Richard remembers the departure vividly: “As soon as we got on board and left the harbour, all of us went on deck and waved. We sang: ‘Bye, bye, Arabs, we leave you now’. We were so happy it was finally happening.”

The journey lasted for a month. The ship was crowded and mosquitoes pestered the passengers on board. The UN had put people from different tribes together, which caused unrest at first. But soon, they started to interact. “We all had the same experiences so we shared them”, recalls Richard. “By the time we arrived in Juba, we were like a big family.”

Life back in the south has not been easy for the Lukas. After three decades away, the family had to start all over again and help to pick up the pieces of their destroyed country. Father Luka struggles to make ends meet as a tailor and Richard ‘s work as a small-scale farmer barely brings in enough to feed his family. He met his wife Nora Joan in Juba and married her soon after. She is nine months pregnant and about to deliver the couple’s first child.

“It gives me sleepless nights thinking about how we will cope when the baby is born. How will I feed three if I already struggle to feed two? It worries me a lot.” Richard’s dream is to finish his university degree, which he started in Khartoum but abandoned because of financial constraints. He knows he is capable of doing it, but the costs and the responsibility for his  new family hold him back.

“We need quick development on all fronts- education, food supply and jobs for the poor, so that my child won’t have to struggle like I have struggled.”

With independence now around the corner, Richard’ views on the future of his country are clear. “Our politicians need to make their promises reality. We need quick development on all fronts- education, food supply and jobs for the poor, so that my child won’t have to struggle like I have struggled.”

Richard and Nora’s baby will be one of the first children of the new Republic of South Sudan. When asked how he feels about the fact that his first child will be born on South Sudanese grounds, his eyes light up: “It is very special. I will be the proudest father in the world.” He has already decided on the baby’s name. Whether it will be a boy or girl, will be called Hora – the Juba-Arabic for Freedom.

ALMA_Starting from scratch_p6_Oct 2011 ALMA_Starting from scratch_p5_Oct 2011 ALMA_Starting from scratch_p4_Oct 2011 ALMA_Starting from scratch_p3_Oct 2011

Following the ‘yes’ vote for independence in January, the Government of Southern Sudan called upon its remaining exiled citizens to come home and help rebuild their nation. As an incentive, it promised each returning family a piece of land. Although plans are being put in place to deal with the assignment of allotments, most returnees are still officially homeless. Some have tried to get back to their family grounds, but after years or even decades away, most land is now being occupied by others and claiming ancestry without paperwork often proves difficult if not impossible.

The number of returnees continues to grow, with many more expecting to come back after July 9th. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), over 300,000 people have returned to the south in the past 7 months alone. In between November 2010 and June 2011, just over 140,000 returnees came back with support from the southern government and the UN. The other half made the journey back themselves.

Despite support from the international community, the influx of returnees is putting enormous pressure on the nation to be. In a country where 9 out of 10 people live on less than $1 a day,  according to UN statistics, the shortages of food, drinking water, sanitation and health care are already huge. The infrastructure to meet the increasing demands is fragile. The new Republic of South Sudan covers 650,000 square kilometer – bigger than the United Kingdom and Germany combined- yet there exists only 30 miles of paved roads.

In Western Juba, Agnes Wosuk from Catholic international aid collective Caritas updates her list of new arrivals. Together with local charities Sudanaid and Catholic Relief Services, she works to provide humanitarian assistance to 100,000 people in most urgent need of shelter, food and sanitation. Not all people she speaks to today are returnees from the north. Many have also fled to Juba as a result of the ongoing tribal conflicts within the south. IOM estimates that from January 2007 to July 2010, more than half of four million people displaced from or within Sudan have returned to their places of origin. Despite this, Sudan is still the country with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world.

The story in ALMA, a Spanish-language  magazine published in the United States for all the Hispanic community residing in the country, October 2011.

Sabia’s story in ALMA, a Spanish-language magazine published in the United States for all the Hispanic community residing in the country, October 2011.

Sabia Leot (21) is one of these people. An orphan at age 7, she grew up with an aunt  in a small village near the southern town of Yei. The family arranged her marriage to an SPLA soldier when she was fourteen years old. He was based in Juba, where Sabia gave birth to their first baby boy in 2005. Two years later she had her second child, this time a girl, followed by another girl in 2008.

“When it is dry, we sleep under a tree. But when the rains come, we have to run and hope someone will give us shelter for the night.”

Soon after that, Sabia’s husband was transferred to an army base in the town of Bantu and the family moved along. Life was peaceful for a while, until violence broke out at the end of last year. An ongoing dispute between two local tribes had escalated and armed conflict caused chaos in the area. Sabia was three months pregnant with her fourth child.

On the 18th of December Sabia’s husband decided that it was time for his wife and children to flee the area. By now, the army was involved in the conflict and fighting had intensified. He gave her some money and a cell phone and told her to take the children to Juba. “As soon as I rented a small room for me and the children to live in, I rang him”, recalls Sabia. “He said not to worry and that he would send us money every month, until it was safe for us to come back. He told me to look after the children and phone him if there were any problems. I thought we were going to be fine.”

Trouble started after the first month, when Sabia did not receive any money. She tried to phone her husband, but the phone number she had used earlier did not work any more. She asked her landlord to be patient, as she believed the money could arrive any day now. After two weeks, the house owner had enough and told the family to leave.

Pregnant and with three small children, Sabia was sent onto the streets, carrying nothing but the few belongings she brought. With no family to go back to and no money to feed her children, she has been wondering around the plots of land in Western Juba ever since. She has found a few old relatives, who sometimes offer her shelter and food for a few nights. When she feels like she had outstayed her welcome, she takes the children by the hand and moves on. “The eldest ones keep asking me why we can’t go back to our rented room. I tell them: ‘That room is not our home. Our home is with Daddy.’ It is hard for them to understand.”

“I say to the little ones: ‘Don’t worry, let us sleep. Tomorrow, we will eat.”

Sabia has been homeless for five months now, and the situation is getting more pressing each day. The start of the rain season has made matters worse. “When it is dry, we sleep under a tree. But when the rains come, we have to run and hope someone will give us shelter for the night. During the day, I go around people’s houses and ask if I can do small jobs for them. It gets harder because my belly has grown so much. Sometimes they give me some food or a few [Sudanese] pounds. But often, we go hungry. I say to the little ones: ‘Don’t worry, let us sleep. Tomorrow, we will eat.”

Since that one phone call upon her arrival in Juba, Sabia has not heard from her husband. She says it is unlike him not to contact her. “I pray every day that no one will come and bring me bad news.”

Some nights, when the children are asleep, Sabia thinks about taking her own life. With the pregnancy coming to an end, she worries about the health of her family and unborn baby. In a country were 1 in 7 pregnant women die of complications, the dangers are horribly real. She holds her baby bump as she speaks: “I can’t think about what is happening to me. I don’t know where I will deliver my child and how we will cope. I try not to think at all. Every night, I thank God that another day has passed.”