New South Sudan nation strained by masses returning home
JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN | Africa’s newest nation is only a few days old, but it already is facing a humanitarian crisis, with about 1,000 people a day crowding into this dusty capital straining under the population crush.
“We are witnessing an unprecedented acceleration in the number of people returning to the south,” said Giovanni Bosco, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in South Sudan.
“This large number of people has put an additional strain on the limited resources and the limited capacity of public services in the south.”
South Sudan is rich in oil and other natural resources, but it remains one of the poorest nations on Earth, with 90 percent of the population living on less than $1 a day.
The new nation also has some of the worst health statistics. In some areas, only one doctor serves as many as 500,000 people, and more women die in childbirth than anywhere else in the world.
The population is estimated to be 8 million according to a 2008 census, but the government suspects those figures are inaccurate.
Since the end of two decades of civil war between the Arab north and the mostly black African south in 2005, more than 2 million people who fled the fighting have returned to the south.
Betty Achan Ogwaro, a member of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly, said the influx poses a grave risk because of a lack of jobs.
“The sources of livelihood is a problem,” she said. “These people depend on aid, but that aid will not go on forever.”
Barrie Walkley, the senior U.S. diplomat in Juba, added, “It is not the numbers, but the pace at which they are returning that is creating problems.”
Every day, barges brimming with people and their belongings dock at the ramshackle port in this dusty capital of Africa’s newest nation.
The Nile flows south to north, so a journey upriver from Khartoum can take as long as three weeks. But the prospect of an arduous voyage of more than 700 miles has not slowed the pace of southerners returning to their homeland.
Many returning south are buoyed by the hope of finding dignity, the one thing they say that eluded them during their years in the north, still officially known as Sudan, where they suffered religious and racial discrimination.
On a recent afternoon, a group newly arrived from the north sat under the mango trees that line the White Nile and watched boats loaded with onions that bounced gently on the river, a tributary of the Nile.
“We gave up jobs and a stable life in the hope of something better. Most of all, we crave respect,” said Atok Deng, who returned with his young family.
“We lived in Khartoum for many years, but were never made to feel that we belonged there.”
Racial and religious tensions long divided Sudan, with mainly Arab Muslims in the north and black Africans in the south who embraced Christianity or traditional religions.
The new government itself is partly to blame for the population surge. Long before the nation was born July 9, an interim government encouraged southerners to return home to vote in a referendum in January that set the region on the path to independence from Sudan.
More than 315,000 people have made the trip back since November.
“What’s motivating them is euphoria for the new country and uncertainty about citizenship [in the north],” said a humanitarian worker who spoke on background. “Some also don’t feel welcome in the north anymore.”
The Sudanese National Assembly in Khartoum recently enacted a law that revoked Sudanese citizenship for southerners living in the north. A Sudanese government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of the issue, said southerners would be considered for citizenship on a “case by case” basis.
The government of South Sudan has offered dual citizenship to southerners.
Fighting in Abyei, an oil-rich region claimed by both north and south, has fueled the pace of refugees flooding south. Towns such as Agok and Turalei near Abyei are awash with refugees.
Many southerners cross the border that bisects this vast country by land. For others, the Nile is the only route of escape.
Most new citizens, accustomed to better lifestyles in Khartoum, are reluctant to return to their villages and instead have packed into state capitals along the border that divides north from south. Populations in these cities have exploded. In the past six months alone, the population has more than doubled in Bentiu, the capital of Unity, one of 10 states in South Sudan.
In Western, Central and Eastern Equatoria states, most of the people returning are living with host families. However, new settlements have sprung up in Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Unity and Upper Nile states.
Many are shocked by the standard of living in the south.
“In Khartoum, these people had water in their houses. Now they have to walk for it,” the humanitarian worker said. “It is a big transition.”
“I was talking to kids under a tree in Turalei who said they missed the Internet,” she added.
Ms. Ogwaro bristled at the suggestion that some are appalled by the standard of living in the south.
“The children may be shocked, but the adults shouldn’t be,” she said. “They saw worse in Khartoum.”
Development in the south was not a priority for the government in Khartoum, and Juba still suffers from the neglect.
“Juba was intended by our enemies to be a dust city,” said Anthony Lino Makana, minister for roads and transportation in South Sudan.
For those returning to start a new life in the south, language is another significant challenge.
The younger generation has been educated in Arabic in the north. While residents of the south do speak a limited, simplified version called Juba Arabic, English is the main language of communication.
While there has been some discussion about continuing education in Arabic and gradually switching to English, many children of people returning are not in schools.
These challenges are taking a toll on the host population.
“The Sudanese are a very hospitable people,” the humanitarian worker said, “but that hospitality is being stretched to breaking point.”