The convoy of 12 buses and three trucks, transporting 641 people and their personal belongings, arrived safely in Pagak, on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, on Wednesday afternoon. From there, the refugee agency will take the returnees to their villages in Maiwut County in South Sudan.
Among those returning home was Peter Mayak who, as a 13-year-old, trekked hundreds of miles to reach Fugnido camp in 1987. He was one of an estimated 16,000 Sudanese children who were forced from their villages by war. They have become popularly known as "the lost boys of Sudan," after Peter Pan's band of orphans. Mayak saw many of his friends dying of hunger and dehydration on their way to Ethiopia and considers himself lucky to have survived at all. "Going home for me is therefore a great surprise and a kind of rebirth," he says.
"I think it's now time to go home and lead a normal, peaceful life. I was told that my father and three of my siblings had died," Mayak said while preparing to go home with his wife and two Ethiopian-born children. "I really, really long to see my mother once again, although recognising each other after all these years is not going to be easy."
UNHCR Regional Liaison Representative Ilunga Ngandu expressed satisfaction at the pace of the repatriation. "In the last two months alone we assisted more than 15,000 Sudanese to go back home. This is a great achievement," Ngandu said. "I congratulate all colleagues and partners, in particular the government of Ethiopia and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), for their efforts in making the repatriation of Sudanese refugees a success."
With many Sudanese refugees signing up to go home as soon as possible, UNHCR opened two more repatriation corridors from Ethiopia last March. Since then, an average of 1,500 refugees have been going back to Sudan each week through the Kurmuk, Pagak and Bambudi corridors.
More than 1,000 refugees returning to areas inaccesible by road were tranported by air this month from Gambella airport to Jongley, Upper Nile and south Kordofan states in South Sudan.
One of the five camps hosting Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, Yarenja, closed last month after more than 1,400 refugees returned home. UNHCR and its partners are intensifying the return operation from the remaining camps.
When the repatriation operation was launched in March 2006, there were more than 70,000 Sudanese refugees in western Ethiopia. This latest convoy brings the number of Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia to just under 50,000.
Most of the Sudanese are seeing their homeland for the first time in years, while a significant number of them were born in the camps.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled southern Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s to escape fighting between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Khartoum government.
The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005 paved the way for the return of thousands of Sudanese refugees from neighbouring countries. A tripartite agreement signed by UNHCR with the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan in February 2006 laid the legal framework for the repatriation operation.
To date, UNHCR has helped over 55,000 Sudanese refugees return home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Uganda, Kenya, Egypt and Ethiopia. In addition, over 137,000 Sudanese refugees have returned by their own means.
By Kisut Gebre Egziabher in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia