Last Updated: Thu Dec 30, 2010 14:17 pm (KSA) 11:17 am (GMT)

War-weary South Sudanese exiles reluctant to return

Sudan refugees in Egypt
Sudan refugees in Egypt

Bayak Chuol Puoch survived one of the last century's deadliest wars, so it might be understandable that he is hesitant to risk another.

About eight years ago, Puoch fled Sudan's decades-long civil war for Egypt, now home to more than 20,000 registered Sudanese refugees and possibly hundreds of thousands more undocumented migrants.

For Puoch and many other southerners, next month's vote on whether Sudan's south should split from the north represents the fruition of a half-century old dream of independence, but it also raises the spectre of renewed war.

"If there is peace in Sudan, I will go back," Puoch, who has a nursing degree, said in the entrance to the three-room community centre that he runs in a Cairo suburb.

"When I go back, I will help my people, because my people are suffering -- no doctors, no nurses. It's difficult. But I cannot go now, because I am afraid."

The Jan. 9 plebiscite was promised by a 2005 peace accord that ended decades of war between Sudan's mainly Muslim north and the oil-rich south, where most people follow Christianity and traditional animist beliefs.

But many of Egypt's southern Sudanese, afraid the north will not let the south go without a fight, are still reluctant to return before the vote, migration officials and aid workers say.

The war was one of Africa's most bitter conflicts, killing an estimated 2 million people and forcing 4 million to flee.

Waiting

 What we've seen, actually, is very much a wait-and-see approach, where Sudanese would wait to see the results of the referendum before making the decision 
UNHCR representative Mohamed Dayri

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) helped 1,645 Sudanese return in 2007 and 1,104 in 2008. But last year the number dropped to 631, and just 376 refugees have been repatriated from Egypt in the first 11 months of 2010.

"The trend is a drastic decrease in the number of people who voluntarily would like to repatriate back home to southern Sudan in 2009 and 2010 compared to the previous years," regional UNHCR representative Mohamed Dayri said.

"I think people are on the watch."

The International Organization for Migration has seen a similar trend since last year, said one official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.

"What we've seen, actually, is very much a 'wait-and-see' approach, where Sudanese would wait to see the results of the referendum before making the decision. So the rate of return hasn't been as high as we expected -- it's been quite low actually so far," he said.

This contrasts with the flood of southern exiles who have returned from northern Sudan, where many fear intimidation, reprisals or vote-rigging during a referendum in which the south is widely expected to choose independence.

Tensions have risen in the run-up to the referendum. The southern army accused the north of bombing its territory in November and December, saying Khartoum was trying to derail the vote. The northern army denied the raids.

The north and south have also spent months in negotiations over issues such as how they would share oil revenues after a split, but there has been little public sign of progress.

Simon Peter, a social worker in Cairo who fled Sudan's Eastern Equatoria state in 2004, said fear of border disputes between north and south as well as of fighting among southern tribes had pushed some refugees to stay in Egypt for now.

"They say, 'Now I have been all my life in war. I am here, let me be safe in Egypt'," Peter said, adding he expected many more to return after the vote.

Independence

Finding work and enrolling children in school is often difficult for refugees in Egypt, where job creation has failed to keep pace with a fast-growing population, transport infrastructure is under strain and schools over-crowded.

Many of the Sudanese at Puoch's community centre are house cleaners -- and even those jobs can be hard to come by, he said. Peter, the social worker, said many of his Sudanese acquaintances were overqualified for their jobs.

Such challenges make the prospect of returning to an independent country more appealing, he added.

"I know a lawyer who is working cleaning houses. We have a doctor who is working as an office boy," Peter said. "When you go back, it's different. When you're in your house, you are free."

Egypt's foreign ministry said it had no plans to repatriate southern Sudanese after the vote. But the southern Sudanese government, eager to bring back citizens to help build the new country, is optimistic more will return after the referendum.

Southern Sudanese officials have drawn up a plan to help repatriate over 12,000 southerners from Egypt in 2011, offering money for transport and other expenses.

Some southerners say the lure of living in an independent south is already strong enough to trump the threat of war. Francis Wani, a 39-year-old teacher from the southern capital Juba, said he would go back whether or not fighting is renewed.

"I would like to be there ... ready to receive that newborn which is called South Sudan," he said.

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