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The South Sudanese Families Stranded While Trying to Return Home

Civil war in neighbouring Sudan has forced thousands to return to their troubled country – but even having crossed the border, their problems are not over.

Thirty-three-year-old Garpam Ruotken, his elderly, blind father and several other relatives have been waiting for almost a month to board one of the roofless, seatless boats departing from the river port in the town of Renk, on the White Nile.

They are among hundreds of families who have been camping for days in the blazing sun in north-eastern South Sudan, close to the border with Sudan.

About 67,000 South Sudanese have fled Sudan since conflict erupted in Khartoum on 15 April. Numbers of returnees could reach 180,000 by mid-July, according to the UN, threatening to further destabilise the world’s youngest country.

Women and children waiting at the port of Renk with their luggage, under the sun and with no humanitarian assistance, hoping to get on a boat to Malakal.
Women and children wait at the port of Renk with their luggage, under the sun and with no humanitarian assistance, hoping to get on a boat to Malakal

Since the start of the war in Sudan, approximately 272,000 people have escaped into neighbouring countries. Unlike the 126,000 Sudanese seeking refuge in Egypt and the 80,000 who have entered Chad, 90% of those arriving into South Sudan are returnees. They had sought refuge, work, medical treatment and education in Sudan and are now coming home prematurely.

Government authorities and humanitarian organisations led by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) want to avoid setting up camps at Renk, a small town about 40 miles from the border, with poor infrastructure. Their emergency response plan aims to return people to their final destinations within South Sudan, where they will be supported with food rations. A transit centre has been established at the Upper Nile University campus in Renk to provide the most vulnerable with basic services while they wait to leave.

Peter Gatkuoth, 51, shows his registration card, that should allow him to board a boat to Malakal out of Renk. A teacher by profession, he had escaped the South Sudanese civil war in 2014 and sought refuge in Khartoum, where he has been working as a teacher. Now that he has been forced to leave Khartoum, he hopes to find work once he returns to Malakal but worries about political instability in South Sudan.
Peter Gatkuoth shows his registration card, which should allow him to board a boat to Malakal out of Renk

Peter Gatkuoth, 51, was a teacher in Khartoum and has been stranded in Renk for a month since he left the Sudanese capital with his family. “We have no place to stay and no food,” he says. He intends to look for a job in Malakal, the town he fled in 2014 because of the civil war.

“Not much has changed in South Sudan,” he says. “There is no infrastructure, no good schools for our children, no hospitals … But after all, South Sudan is my country, I’ll try to make it work.”

Elizabeth Mayik (right), 63, was a social worker specialised in child protection with the ministry of gender and social welfare before the South Sudan civil war ravaged her home town of Malakal. She fled in 2014 and became a cleaner in Khartoum, washing and ironing clothes with her sister and daughters. When fighting broke out mid-April, she left Khartoum with her sister Rebecca Mayik (centre) and their aunt Nyatuk Akol (left), “who doesn’t have children to help her”. When boats organised by the church arrived at the port, they were not able to push their way in and remain stuck here without money and without humanitarian assistance. They are sleeping outside, at the port, and protect themselves from the sun in the shadow of an old boat.
(From right) Elizabeth Mayik, with her sister Rebecca Mayik and their aunt Nyatuk Akol

Seeking relief from the heat in the shadow of a rusted boat, Elizabeth Mayik, 63, has also been waiting at the port for weeks. She spent all her money on transport from Khartoum and relies on food handouts from distant relatives in Renk. “I fled to Sudan in 2014, when the war got too heavy in Malakal,” she says. A social worker at the time, she became a cleaner in Khartoum and worked hard to rent a house for her children and relatives. Now she’s not sure where she will stay and how she will make a living.

“My house in Malakal was destroyed. I’ll look for my plot of land and if the security is OK, I’ll build a shelter on it,” she says. “If not, I’ll go to the UN camp.”

But the UN’s protection of civilians (POC) site in Malakal is already “full, full, full”, according to Marie-Hélène Verney, the UNHCR representative in South Sudan. Set up in December 2013 in response to the civil war in the wider Upper Nile state, of which Malakal is the capital, the camp continues to receive new waves of internally displaced people fleeing local conflicts. Today it hosts over 41,000, more than twice its intended capacity. Plans are being made to resettle returnees from Sudan coming back to Malakal outside the POC site.

South Sudanese returnees stranded with their luggage at the port of Renk, a month after the war broke out in Khartoum.
South Sudanese returnees stranded with their luggage at the port of Renk, a month after the war broke out in Khartoum

With no good roads and a small airstrip, getting people moving out of Renk in large numbers is a logistical headache. Boats on the Nile remain the best option. The IOM has already ferried 2,000 vulnerable people towards Malakal free of charge. The Catholic aid agency Caritas has organised boats, and private river transport companies are starting to come in.

From Malakal, the UN will provide further help for those who can’t afford to travel on their own to the capital, Juba, and elsewhere. Thousands have been airlifted by the government and by private companies responding to a citizens’ call for assistance. But tens of thousands remain stuck in Renk, and up to 2,000 people are arriving from Sudan every day.

South Sudan became independent in 2011 amid scenes of euphoria, but descended into civil war in 2013 and remains marred by conflict and poverty despite a 2018 peace deal. Of its 12 million inhabitants, 76% rely on aid to survive. More than 2 million South Sudanese are believed to be living in Sudan, including 800,000 refugees. The journey back to their homeland under such circumstances is a painful and anxious one.

South Sudanese women carry their suitcases across the main road coming from the border with Sudan, in Renk town.
The water point at the transit centre.
(Top) South Sudanese women carry their suitcases after arriving in Renk. People queue for food at the transit centre in the abandoned Upper Nile University campus. (Bottom) The water point in the transit centre. A woman rests under a sun shelter she has made from a bed sheet

“We are asking the government and the humanitarian partners to speed up the returnees’ movement out of Renk,” says Yoanis Padiet Tor, who chairs the relief and rehabilitation commission of Upper Nile state, a government humanitarian body. “Most of these returnees are traumatised, and many are adolescent boys,” he says. “If they stay here longer, they’re going to become desperate and may cause problems.”

On 15 May, a fight broke out among youths at the water point at the transit centre in Renk. Thirty people were wounded and one man died. Following the violence, thousands left the site and are now sleeping in the streets of Renk without access to food, water or sanitation.

Awok Yak Wek, 50, was in Khartoum to visit her grownup children when the war broke out. They have all come to Renk but are now stranded here. She’s worried about the lack of sanitation where they stay, and hopes to leave in the coming days.
Awok Yak Wek, was in Khartoum to visit her grownup children when the conflict started. They are all now stranded here

“I’m concerned for our health,” says Awok Yak Wek, 50, from Aweil in north-western South Sudan, her thin body wrapped in a pink toubtraditionally worn by Sudanese women. She had gone to Khartoum to visit her children. “We don’t have toilets. If we are not taken to Aweil soon, diseases are going to break out.”

Lying in the shade of a tree, Arek Piol Malou, 30, also from Aweil, is unable to walk because of an injury she suffered in Khartoum, when a stray bullet hit her lower back while she slept. Three weeks after being shot, she’s yet to see a doctor. “The bullet is still inside my body. I don’t know where to get help,” she says.

“If we are not transported in the coming days, we are going to die here,” adds Ngong Malong Ngor, 70, an elder from Aweil.

The transit centre set up by the humanitarian agencies in Renk town, in the abandoned campus of the Upper Nile University, to host the most vulnerable South Sudanese returnees from Sudan.
The transit camp was set up by humanitarian agencies in Renk to host the most vulnerable returnees

Even for those receiving minimal health services and daily meals at the transit centre in Renk, the delay is becoming unbearable. “People are post-traumatic here,” says Kamrah Abraham Albert from the International Rescue Committee. “They have seen deaths, they have lost everything they had. Some of them came without luggage and have been separated from family members.”

After 35 years in Sudan, Catherine Dimitri, 40, an NGO worker in Khartoum, ran with the clothes and shoes she was wearing when someone yelled at her to get on a truck heading to South Sudan. She grabbed her two grandchildren and left her disabled daughter behind with relatives. “I hope to find a job in Juba, and to reunite all my children there,” she says. For now, a plastic bucket and a blanket are her only possessions.

Source: The Guardian