4 October (IRIN)
Nyadiang Nyeding, a woman widowed by war, sits under a palm tree in Pakwa village, fiddling absentmindedly with a small heap of plants in front of her. It is her main source of food after the harvest failed due to bad rains.
Pakwa is a small Shilluk village on the Lwol River, a tributary of the Nile, southwest of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile State. It was burned to the ground in March 2004 during one of the last large-scale militia attacks in Sudan's 21-year north-south civil war that claimed two million lives.
About 30 percent of Pakwa's population - an estimated 350 households - have recently returned and are struggling to eke out a living after losing their houses, cattle, household items and agricultural tools.
"Grass will not be available during the upcoming dry season and fishing is limited as we have lost most of our equipment, so we are planning to sell firewood and charcoal to pay for food," Nyeding told IRIN.
"Because of malnutrition, women often have no milk to feed their babies. Many children born after the crisis died," she added.
Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement by the Sudanese government and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) on 9 January 2005, as well as the adoption of a new government of national unity and the end of the rainy season in October, the international community expects potentially large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to one of the poorest regions in Africa.
"We expect a tsunami [of returning IDPs]," Riek Machar, vice president of southern Sudan, told reporters on 28 September in Juba. "It is one of the largest displaced populations in the world, four million, and the current [southern] government doesn't have the capacity to receive them."
Between January and the coming dry season - from November 2005 to March 2006 - the UN was expecting an estimated 580,000 IDPs to return to the south, 240,000 of whom had already returned by July. Unconfirmed, preliminary estimates for the year 2006 vary between half a million and 1.5 million expected returnees.
"We told them [IDP communities in Khartoum] assisted returns would start in November, but people are coming on their own, they are not waiting," Machar noted.
"If you look at the current basic indicators and social services in the SPLM/A areas, it is very difficult there. You have a huge educational problem and everything else: no health, water, roads, no functioning markets, no justice systems at all, no police, no shops or supply of commodities," Manuel Aranda da Silva, Deputy Special Representative for the UN Secretary-General in Sudan and Humanitarian Coordinator, said in Khartoum on 23 September.
"The nature of the problem is enormous and what needs to be done is a massive construction of everything. I don't think that any other place in Africa is at such a low level of development as south Sudan," Da Silva added.
The long road home
Of the estimated four million people displaced by the north-south conflict, approximately two million are thought to be living in IDP camps and squatter areas around Khartoum.
Living under very difficult conditions - with their settlements regularly destroyed during so-called replanning operations by the State of Khartoum - many of them are eager to return home.
The town of Kosti, south of Khartoum on the banks of the Nile, is an important transit point for IDPs returning to the south, and many wait on the wharf to take one of the barges up the river.
"I want to go back, but it is a very long journey. I have been in Kosti for one month now, but don't have money for the boat," 28-year-old Tepisa Nyabang, returning to Nasir in Upper Nile State with her three children, said.
NGOs providing assistance to stranded families at the wharf reported that approximately 100 families were camping under an iron roof in what looked like a former train shelter, amidst a sprawling collection of beds, chairs and personal belongings.
"The problem is that those who are the worst off are the first to move. You would need the strong to go back first, but instead it is the women, children and disabled who are going back," Dennis McNamara, director of the inter-agency internal displacement division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told IRIN.
"The continuation of the demolition policy in Khartoum only encourages this trend," he added.
While humanitarian agencies do not want to promote returns at this stage because of the lack of services in the south, they have little choice but to provide assistance and protection to those returning spontaneously and those who get stranded en route to southern Sudan.
"We are not promoting, we are not organising [the return of IDPs], but we are trying to monitor and make sure that minimum protection and humanitarian assistance is available for those who need it," McNamara said.
As a result, NGOs were providing minimum assistance - shelter, water, sanitation and medical assistance - at major points of transit. Vulnerable groups were provided with a blanket, a mosquito net, and some food.
However, southern Sudan's vice president said: "As soon as they [the IDPs] know there is assistance on the return route, they will come back. Although returns are often communal decisions, some don't wait for instructions from their chief."
A further complication is that the commercial cargo barges, which take five days to travel from Kosti to Malakal and 25 days to reach the southern capital of Juba, are unsuitable for the transportation of people.
The iron decks become unbearably hot under the equatorial sun, people occasionally drown and railings are missing. Proper sanitation facilities are also absent altogether, leading to highly unhygienic conditions.
Another problem is that the unpredictability of spontaneous return movements, coupled with the limited capacity of Sudan's River Transport Corporation, could potentially lead to considerable bottlenecks in key transit points during the peak return season.
"There is not enough capacity at the wharf in Kosti to accommodate the kind of numbers of people that are expected," Vikri Aradib, commissioner of White Nile State for the Humanitarian Affairs Commission of the Sudanese government, told IRIN.
"People don't want to move elsewhere as they want to keep their eyes on the barges. The barges are few and have irregular schedules, so people are afraid to miss them," he added.
As many of the returnees have been displaced for one or two decades, NGOs are using the wait on the wharf as an opportunity to educate them on basic life skills for the south, ranging from health and sanitation to cooking.
"We found that young women who were born in the north didn't know anything about the food they'll find in the south, let alone how to cook it," Jameil Mahmud, White Nile coordinator for the NGO Fellowship for African Relief, explained.
"It has been a big success so far. If a woman can't cook, she won't find a husband," he added.
A major area of return is the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan State, where over 300,000 people have already returned following an earlier, separate ceasefire agreement for the region in 2002.
The village of Enbal, some 60 km east of the capital, Kadugli, was completely destroyed in 1989 and its inhabitants fled into the surrounding mountains or went to Khartoum. Over the past two years, however, they have started to return.
Although some of the houses have been rebuilt, finding sufficient food remains of great concern due to the poor rains, the lack of agricultural tools and the inaccessibility of certain farming areas.
"People don't cultivate the fields to the south of the village because they are suspected of being mined," Eliah Madua Kuary, a 48-year-old man who grew up in Enbal, told IRIN, pointing out three men with prosthetic limbs.
Another security threat identified by women in the village were the many Sudanese police officers reportedly recruited from the armed forces in the area who they claimed had continued to harass - and occasionally rape - women in the village.
In June, 50 returnees on a bus from Khartoum were robbed of all their money and valuables as they were about to arrive. During the incident, one woman from Enbal was shot, but nobody was killed.
"These are very vulnerable people with all their worldly assets on the move and often without men, for example women and children, or without their clans - their normal structures of protection," McNamara noted.
Apart from lack of food and ongoing insecurity, many services - such as water, education and health - are still lacking or stretched to capacity due to the continued arrival of fresh returnees.
"We have 878 pupils in our school and very few supplies," Paul Andreas, the village teacher, said. "In some cases, we have as many as 150 children in one class."
The acting SPLM/A Governor of Nuba Mountains, Jagod Makwar, acknowledged that many services necessary to receive returning IDPs were "non-existent on the ground".
"It is hard to set priorities because everything is a priority," he said. "Our people in Khartoum are suffering and you cannot tell them to wait until things have improved here."
"We have suffered a lot and our suffering is still there. We lack almost everything," Hosna Sajid, a 20-year-old girl who returned last year to the town of Kauda in the Nuba Mountains, said.
However, Sajid maintains that life in the south is still preferable to life as an IDP: "Life is tough here, but it is better than our lives in Khartoum."
Building from scratch
Although humanitarian organisations do not want to encourage IDPs to return to the south at this time, a large-scale international effort is underway to prepare this region for the influx of additional people.
"We like to see people going at the same time that conditions are improving in the south, particularly open communications, roads and the capacity to move, without being at risk with mines, and at the same time a minimum of basic services that could permit people not to go to a worse situation than that from which they came," the UN's Da Silva explained.
In November 2004, the UN and partner NGOs put together a programme worth around US $680 million for a basic response to the redevelopment needs in the south for 2005, but lack of funds is slowing down its implementation.
"By January, we had committed resources of $40 million. It is now $300 million, around 50 percent, but it was very slow. It is moving better in the last three months because of the urgency of things," Da Silva noted.
"The donors keep on shifting the goal-posts; they keep on postponing the provision of funds," David Gressly, the UN deputy resident and humanitarian coordinator for southern Sudan, told IRIN on 28 September in Juba.
"Because of this postponement, we missed the precious dry season of 2004-2005. Missing the next dry season would be criminal," he added.
Da Silva said the digging of boreholes, the construction of schools and the implementation of programmes to support agriculture were only possible during the dry season - between November and May.
"The south has been at war for 40 years. I think it is the moral responsibility
of the international community to uplift the south from the state it is in,"