CRS helps refugees return home to Southern Sudan

Homeward Bound

While the emergency of Darfur captures most of the attention when people talk of Sudan, a story of hope and homecoming is taking place in another region of the country. In southern Sudan, millions are expected to return home after the end of 22 years of brutal, deadly civil war -- the longest continuous war on the African continent. With a peace agreement signed in January, southern Sudanese face the rebuilding of their homeland.

In Khartoum, Sudan's capitol, CRS is helping thousands of people prepare for this journey. In the Homeward Bound project, CRS helps young displaced Sudanese learn the skills of plumbing, carpentry, engineering and other such professions, to help them undertake a dignified, peaceful, and sustainable resettlement in their traditional southern homelands.

"The training program is the best thing that could have happened," says Deng Maween Akok, a Dinka tribal leader in the Jebel Awlia camp for internally displaced persons about 25 miles outside Khartoum, speaking through an interpreter. He and his family fled the south in 1986 and have lived in two such camps since arriving in Khartoum's unwelcoming environment.

"When they go south, they can help rebuild the country," he says of the young men learning brick-laying and construction at the St. Vincent de Paul training school next to Jebel Awlia.

In the mud-walled hut he has built in the Jebel Awlia community since marrying recently, Malwan Dan, who is 30 and older than most of the students enrolled at the St. Vincent training school, speaks of a day when he and his mother, Ajak Arou, and the rest of the family will return south.

"We have not had this hope before," Dan says, speaking through an interpreter. "When I finish (the eight-month program at St. Vincent's), I will try to go for more courses. Then I will go south and work.

"They will need me," he says. "It is our own country. We must go back to our own country."

At the St. Joseph Training School in Khartoum, 18-year-old Thomas Loira, speaks some English. He tells of his excitement when he saw the advertisement in his church bulletin inviting young men from the south to apply for places in the Homeward Bound project at St. Joseph's.

"I applied right away," he says. "This was very exciting. I want to be a carpenter. I wanted to make our situation good for when we return. Now I am learning to be a carpenter and I will return to my home in Juba and work as a carpenter."

At St. Joseph's, the 246 students enrolled in the Homeward Bound courses are studying to become carpenters, plumbers and electricians, three of the eight courses offered by the school.

The Homeward Bound program provides tuition, food for one mid-day meal, transportation for those living far from the center, and supplies such as wood for the carpenters and plumbing and electrical equipment for the aspiring plumbers and electricians. Upon graduation from the eight-month program, each student receives a tool kit valued at $140 to embark upon his new livelihood, and a transportation stipend to allow students to return to the South.

Sudan at a Turning Point

Having escaped to Khartoum from the abiding battle grounds and hardships of the south, 10, 15 and 20 years ago, the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of southerners who settled in Khartoum found a harsh life.

Last January, the Islamic government in the north signed a peace treaty with rebels in the predominantly Christian and animist south in which some 2 million people are believed to have been killed. Roughly 4 million others were driven from their homes by marauding Arab tribesmen who raped, pillaged and kidnapped with impunity, and the rebels who fought against them.

Between 1.5 million and 2 million Southern Sudanese displaced from the war still live in sprawling, dusty makeshift camps of mud dwellings around Khartoum. As in much of their quarter century experience with the ravages of war, the internally displaced populations have depended on their own ingenuity and help from a vast array of foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations like CRS to survive.

The challenge-now that a peace treaty has been signed and the Khartoum government and southern rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement have agreed to form a national unity government-is to ensure a safe return of Sudanese to their ancestral homeland, where a long road of recovery and rebuilding has barely begun.