For the final 27 internally displaced persons who boarded a UN helicopter from Bor on Thursday, the feeling was nothing but nostalgic and ecstatic.
For five years, like many who fled Akobo and other parts of the country in 2013 when war broke out, they had been taking refuge at the UNMISS Protection of Civilians site in Bor, safe from all the incidents that pushed them out of their homes.
“I fled Akobo with some friends and relatives when the war broke out and I must say I was lucky to end up in Bor at the UNMISS camp,” said Sarah Nyabel Gatluak, to whom this return home was a long-awaited move. On her lap was Manyang, her 10-month old baby boy who was born at the camp, unaware of the changing circumstances around him.
“Some of the people were not so lucky as they got caught up in crossfire and only God knows what has happened to them,” continued Sarah, grateful to be alive and returning home.
Cautious preparations had preceded this move, including reconnaissance visits to their former homes, facilitated by UNMISS and humanitarian partners, including UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. These exploratory visits were meant to enable the internally displaced persons to make an individual choice to voluntarily return home after hearing the reports from their people. In addition, the recently signed revitalised peace agreement has brought new impetus and excitement, influencing the decision by the displaced persons from Akobo to embark on this joyful journey back home.
Elation on the way home
Margaret Nyakuma Malual had been away from home for 10 years. She was all smiles throughout the flight, sitting adjacent to me, I could almost feel her elation at the thought of going back home at last. She just could not wait to hop out of the aircraft when we came to a final halt. But alas, she had forgotten to unstrap her seat belt, so back onto the seat she fell, drawing spontaneous laughter from the 12 young boys on board, who had been unable to hide their joy, giggling and fidgeting throughout the near-one-hour flight.
The boys expressed happiness at arriving home, where it is more likely they will be freer and be able to mix better.
But challenges await them. According to David Thuok, a clinical officer selling medication at the reception site, “the IDP’s, like their compatriots there will face the problem of malaria, diarrhea and respiratory tract infections. These are the major medical problems we face here,” he said. He is one of the first displaced persons to return earlier this year.
“The water here is bad,” he said, adding, “We hope the World Food Programme or anyone can help us.”
Gratitude: 'Thank you, UNMISS'
The role of UNMISS in bringing a total of 244 persons to the safety of their homes and family was not lost on the benefitting families. “Akobo is home. UNMISS opened its doors to us. They welcomed us and with the help of their agencies, catered so well for us,” said Margaret Nyakuma Malual, adding, “We really appreciate their help and support over the years; we are thankful.”
Nyakwech Kuany, looking rather shy during the trip, came up to express her joy and gratitude for the help they had received in the UN protection site. “At certain times, things looked tough, but it was the UNMISS who stood by us, providing all the things we needed.”
“We do not know where we would have been, but for UNMISS and the safety they provided,” said Biel Chuol, the only male on the first flight to Akobo on Thursday. “I appreciate the life in the camp with UNMISS' protection,” he said.
“This is a sign of significant change blowing across the country and we are happy for them,” said Bernard Brima, team leader of UNMISS’ Relief, Reintegration and Protection (RRP) section, happy that things were getting to the point where the displaced could ask to voluntarily return home.
Before the conclusion of this first phase of the voluntary repatriation exercise, the number of displaced persons in the UNMISS Bor protection site from 1,070 households stood at 2,261, based on figures from a September 2018 biometric registration exercise .