A grim future in South Sudan
09/08/2012 - Malakal, a town in Upper Nile State, South Sudan, has recently seen an influx of Southerners returning from the north to begin a new life in a new country. But life is far from easy for the returnees.
William’s father Michael is 85 and lives in a house made from mud and sticks with a corrugated iron door. The house, which he shares with William’s family, consists of one room, plus two small canvas covered structures outside. Michael’s bed is next to the door.
Michael spends most of his time on the bed because he cannot walk. Just one month ago a donkey cart fell on his leg and because the injury was not treated immediately it became septic. So, to save his life, Michael’s leg was removed just below the knee. He has a pair of crutches but still finds it difficult to walk.
Family returned to Malakal
Michael’s family came to live in Malakal, Upper Nile State, 15 months ago, after the referendum of January 2011 in which 99% of South Sudanese voted to secede from the north and create an independent state. Prior to that, the family had lived in Khartoum for 23 years.
The family originally moved to Khartoum to escape the war that was raging in the south. William, the elder son, was 16 years old at the time. He is from the Shilluck tribe emanating from Upper Nile and he met his wife, also a Shilluck, in Khartoum. They had their first child nearly eight years ago with four more children quickly following. The youngest child is 18 months old, born around the same time as the referendum took place.
After the referendum William was sacked
William had a good job working for a company that made roads, but after the results of the referendum came out, he was sacked. That was 16 months ago. With no work prospects in Khartoum and the new country of South Sudan about to be established, William sold his home and his meagre belongings and under the auspices of the International Organisation for Migration he moved back to Malakal with his wife, five children, his two younger brothers and his elderly father. The journey by road took two days.
Work is hard to find
Since returning to Malakal neither William nor his wife have been able to find a permanent job. He says it is not for lack of trying. He regularly goes out to search for work but competition is fierce. If he is lucky he gets a day’s casual work at the port on the River Nile, unloading goods. With the money he earns he feeds his immediate family and his father. Meals usually consist of the staple food, sorghum, and once or twice a week the family eat fish or meat.
Three of William’s children attend a local school even though he does not have the money to pay fees. He paid once, he says, but could not afford to pay again, and he just hopes that the school will not ask for more money. They did ask for 30 South Sudanese pounds (about five SS pounds to the US dollar) for each child to take exams, but William told the school that he would pay it later, when he could. The children meanwhile, are doing their best to learn English, the official language of South Sudan, having been brought up to speak only Arabic – the language of the north.
Medical care is also a problem. If any of the children are sick William has to seek help from friends to pay for treatment. It was friends too, who assisted him when his father had to have his lower leg amputated.
Living from day to day
Prospects are grim for William and his family. Tension between Sudan and South Sudan has overflowed into conflict, especially in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, displacing people into Upper Nile. In addition, Sudan has decreed that all Southerners must either legalise their status in Sudan or leave the country and return to South Sudan, no matter how long they have lived in the north. This means that there is an influx of new labour competing for jobs, as families migrate south.
At the moment William lives from day to day, just grateful that he has a roof over his head. The long rainy season, from April until October, means that shelter is his priority right now, especially for his disabled father and his young children. His story is typical of many returnees, yet the communities that have received the newcomers are equally pressed, lacking basic needs such as shelter, water and medical facilities. Who can blame them if they begin to resent the returnees?
UNHCR says that returnees, together with receiving communities, “need to be assisted through livelihoods programmes and quick-impact projects in order to promote peaceful co-existence in the country”. For William and his family, impoverished and starting again, therein lies the potential for a better life.