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.
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."
Life in Uganda's refugee camps, Vuni said, was "the worst." The camps were overcrowded, unclean, and lacking basic services. Locals confiscated refugees' livestock, he says, and food rations were meager. Local hospitals refused to provide basic healthcare, Vuni said, or asked impoverished Sudanese patients, "Did you bring your brother?"-a reference to money. Living conditions made it difficult for Vuni and others to move beyond basic survival, he says: "It was just unbearable."
Vuni still has concerns about security in the region but says he's here to stay: "To tell you the truth, if another war comes, I will not leave. I will live and die here."
For those settled in Borongole, living here has distinct advantages. The community is the site for Operation Nehemiah, a Christian ministry to returnees. The small compound off a dirt side road includes an open-air church, a community well, a health clinic, agricultural projects, and a 20-foot radio tower.
Founded by William Levi, a southern Sudanese who fled his nearby village after enduring torture for his Christian faith at the hands of Islamic captors, the ministry began in 1993 to southerners who had fled to refugee camps. Levi, who eventually sought political asylum in the United States, where he now lives, provided support for pastors, scholarships for students, mobile health-care clinics, and agricultural resources in the camps. Today, one of those scholarship students, Luka Gobi Benson, completed medical school this year and has returned to Borongole to direct the ministry's health clinic.
In 2004, Levi and a group of U.S. missionaries opened the road to Borongole to re-establish the community. Since then he has made regular trips to the village to deliver aid and meet with field staff, nearly all of which are Sudanese returnees.
On a June trip to the village, Levi found villagers in the hot morning sun planting peanuts and sweet potatoes in neat rows in the dark, rich soil. The ministry recently acquired a tractor and a tiller, though most villagers will need training to operate the equipment. For now, most plant by hand.
Near a crop of banana trees next to a river, Levi encourages the villagers to be self-sufficient, planting enough crops to help the needy and sell in markets. "You don't need more money," he tells them. "You need faithful men who will work with their own hands."
This is a message Levi repeats often. While U.S. aid is critical to the new work, Levi emphasizes that the goal is self-sufficiency. If southerners work hard, he says, Sudan could become the breadbasket of Africa. Other nations-including Abu Dhabi and South Korea-already see its potential. They have recently approached the government about leasing its rich farmland for their own food supplies, yet South Sudan imports nearly all of its food from other countries.
As some villagers are busy planting, others line up at the ministry's health clinic. Nelly Tebui, a clinician from Kenya who helps operate the clinic, says as many as 60 patients come each day. A large donation of prescription medicines from the United States allows the clinic to treat serious diseases.
Health services in the area are so scarce some people walk several miles for treatment. The UN estimates there is only one doctor per 100,000 people in South Sudan. Poor communication and transportation mean emergencies often turn into fatalities. On a recent afternoon, villagers carried a woman suffering from complications in childbirth nearly five miles on a bed frame to the clinic doors. She recovered, but South Sudan suffers from the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.
The most common health problem is malaria, says Tebui, especially in young children who are often convulsing by the time they reach the clinic. As many as 45 percent of children in Sudan under age 5 suffer from chronic diarrhea caused by waterborne diseases like cholera, and the child mortality rate is high. Babies lie languidly in their mothers' arms waiting for treatment. Tebui says the clinic staff offers information on proper hygiene, preventing malaria, and accessing clean drinking water.
The compound's radio station is another way the clinic is improving community health. Its 20-foot tower can reach as many as 100,000 people, and the ministry distributes small solar-panel radios tuned to its frequency. Mostly the station broadcasts Christian preaching and teaching, and Levi says this is critical to the region's recovery as well. Islamic forces didn't destroy the people, he says, "but the one thing they have succeeded in is the family being broken beyond belief."
Refugee camps became breeding grounds for adultery and alcohol abuse, and depression is common among returnees. Levi emphasizes the importance of "raising up godly men to establish godly homes," and reaching out to widows and orphans. The ministry's focus, he says, is "one family at a time, one village at a time, impacting the community for Christ."
A vibrant Sunday worship service-and a brush with danger-revealed the community's determination to stay in the region. When news surfaced after church that a band of men, possibly from Uganda's notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), had ambushed a village three miles away, a local pastor suggested villagers return home before dark. Instead, the villagers sang, prayed, and danced late into the night. Many slept outside on bamboo mats, while SPLA soldiers with red berets and long rifles patrolled the surrounding streets.
Security remains a concern in the South, though the most volatile area is about 200 miles north in the oil-rich region of Abyei. Clashes between northern and southern troops in May forced as many as 100,000 civilians from their homes. The region lying on the North-South border is still disputed, with both sides laying claim to the land and the lucrative oilfields that produce nearly half of Sudan's 500,000 barrels of oil a day.
Some worry the dispute could spark another civil war between the North and South and warn that continuing instability here will doom prospects for peace in Sudan's other region of conflict, Darfur. But no one here wants a return to war, according to Tiberius Hakim, a member of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the predominant party in the government of South Sudan: "Neither side would benefit."
From an office in Juba, Hakim advises the government on development and runs a private construction company. Officials are eager to develop the capital city, and Juba looks like a gold-rush town: People from all over the region have poured into the city seeking higher wages and economic opportunity.
Higher wages are a must: Sparse hotels charge as much as $200 a night for foreigners and aid workers willing to pay, and rents remain extraordinarily high for homes situated on the edge of slums. But Juba lacks the infrastructure to support rapid economic development, and the boom could turn into a bust. The city lacks running water, electricity, and sewage systems. Phone lines are unreliable. Customers on competing cell phone networks can't call each other. At the city's airport, workers keep paper records of flights and passengers.
"Today in Juba nothing happens because there is no power," said Hakim. He means electrical power, and he is trying to convince the government to tap into the vast resources of the Nile to develop hydropower. But he could also mean political and financial power. While Arab money flows into Khartoum and other cities in the North, the government provides little support to southern cities and has not made conditions favorable for free markets. Foreign companies won't invest in development, even though most U.S. sanctions against Sudan don't apply in the South. When Hakim recently conducted business with a U.S. company, the transfer of U.S. dollars to a Sudanese bank took months because of local regulations.
He says the government must make conditions favorable for free markets to operate and must resist the urge to retain too much control: "We are trying to overcome the attitude that the government should just provide services rather than helping competitive companies that can develop resources."
While the government focuses on cities, Sudanese exiles returning to rural villages will continue to rely on nonprofit groups and their own hands to produce what they need to survive. Even under difficult conditions and an uncertain future, the Christians in Borongole seem glad to be home. As the sun rose over the tents and huts one morning last month, they finished morning worship singing, "This is the place that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it."
(Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Operation Nehemiah began work in 1993.)
1983: Arab-dominated government in the North adopts Islamic law. The predominantly Christian South resists.
1983-1984: Southern rebels form the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and a political organization, Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), to bolster resistance.
1989: Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir takes power in a coup-and remains in power today.
1990: Northern forces begin a bloody campaign that kills 2 million and drives 4 million from their homes.
1997: Peace talks begin in Nairobi but soon collapse.
2002-2004: SPLA chief John Garang and international community push peace talks to a final deal.
January 2005: North and South sign Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to end civil war.
July 2005: Garang sworn in as Sudan's first vice president. Twenty-one days later, Garang dies in a helicopter crash.
August 2005: Salva Kiir, a remaining founding member of the SPLM, sworn in as vice president.
December 2005: UN begins repatriation program to return southern refugees home.