Cover Story

Home is where the start is

Tens of thousands of South Sudanese are making the trek from refugee camps back to their villages, only to find that a new beginning includes impassable roads, unexploded landmines, lingering violence, and disease

Issue: "Home again," July 12, 2008

BORONGOLE, Sudan - The day begins early in Borongole. As a thin pink line seeps across the dark morning sky, the sound of creaking metal fills the air. Behind a long wooden fence, a sturdy woman in a brightly colored skirt hunches over a hand pump at a community well in this remote village in South Sudan. The water isn't coming quickly, and six other women holding empty jugs look on as the hand pump swings.

A few yards away, a different sound rises. A handful of Sudanese villagers with pocket-size New Testaments stand in a dusty circle and begin their day with singing: "Let Your Holy Spirit come and take control / Of every situation that has troubled my mind / All my burdens and cares I roll onto You."

For those living in South Sudan these days, the burdens and cares are great. Twenty-six years after civil war with the Arab-dominated government in northern Sudan began, hundreds of thousands of displaced southern Sudanese are returning home for the first time. Three years after a peace deal promised a new start, their homecoming is bittersweet: The South has few resources, rampant disease, and a local government struggling to start from scratch.

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International aid is pouring into the region, and the semi-autonomous government of South Sudan is clamoring for foreign investment to restore basic infrastructure and promote development. But oil revenue continues to flow north, as the government in Khartoum has yet to fulfill all its obligations under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which guaranteed freedom from Islamic law to the South and promised the region a share in the country's vast oil revenues.

The work of churches and Christian groups offering both physical and spiritual relief to returnees reeling from the war-which left more than 2 million people dead and another 4 million driven from their homes-has never been more important: At least 286,000 southerners have returned since 2005, and the UN expects as many as 80,000 to return this year alone.

Many refugees return through Nimule, a Sudanese town on Uganda's northern border and the main corridor for refugees coming from Uganda. Tucked behind the concrete walls and barbed wire of a guarded compound near the edge of the town, a small, whitewashed building houses the UN operations for repatriating refugees. (The UN has assisted nearly half the refugees returning to the South since 2005. The remainder have returned on their own.)

Mohan Lamask from Nepal directs the UN office and describes the repatriation process: Sudanese sign up in Ugandan refugee camps (or camps in Kenya, Ethiopia, and elsewhere), then a German non-governmental agency (NGO) provides transport to Nimule: As many as 700 refugees pile onto trucks and buses with whatever they can carry-household goods, clothing, pots, and the occasional goat or chicken.

When they arrive in Nimule, returnees spend the night at a way station nearby that can accommodate up to 1,000 people. UN staff members give each family a survival kit: a bucket, a tarp, sanitation supplies, and a three-month supply of food. Families with infants also receive a small kit with baby supplies.

Then comes a brief orientation: UN staffers warn returnees about the dangers of unexploded landmines, emphasize the importance of proper sanitation, and discuss common diseases. Access to clean drinking water is a major problem, and some communities have only a handful of wells serving thousands of people. "We're seeing a lot of cholera in the villages," Lamask told WORLD.

After a night in the way station, the UN provides transport to the returnees' final destination, a simple but sobering step, said Lamask. Many want to return to their original villages, but the pathway home is overgrown and impassable after 25 years. Most wind up settling along wide, dirt roads. Small shacks with UN tarps and thatched-roof huts built with handmade bricks dot the southern landscape.

Some 30 miles north, it's been three months since Michael Wani Vuni arrived in the Borongole community with his wife, six children, and father-in-law. Fighting forced Vuni from his nearby village during the war's outbreak in 1989, and he has lived in two refugee camps for more than 25 years.

As the sun sets over the scattered huts in Borongole, Vuni surveys everything he owns: It's all contained in two small huts and a lean-to shack with a UN tarp. A small campfire for cooking and boiling water burns next to a small garden Vuni has planted. His family's UN food supply is running low, and he hasn't seen anyone from the organization since he arrived in the village. But Vuni is relieved to be back in Sudan. "We don't have much, but we still have 90 percent of what we need to live on," he says. "Our problems are minor compared with the obstacles we once faced."

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