Sudan

Despite hardships, South Sudanese refugees say Yei to return

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YEI, South Sudan, June 16 (UNHCR) - For 22 of his 49 years on Earth, Paul Mabe has been a refugee. On the run from South Sudan off and on since 1965, he says it's not a good feeling.

"To be in somebody else's house, you feel inferior. You are not free to do what you want," says the tall and thin former schoolteacher, speaking precise English.

That's the metaphor he offers to explain why he has now left most of his large family behind in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and come back to plant crops and build houses so they can all follow him back to South Sudan.

Mabe is typical of an increasing number of refugee families who now have one foot in South Sudan, and one foot on the other side of the border.

Although precise statistics are hard to come by, it is clear tens of thousands of refugees have already come home to the south on their own, without waiting for de-mining of the roads and the start of organized UNHCR convoys from neighbouring countries. The UN refugee agency anticipates the eventual return of some 550,000 South Sudanese refugees, and the return of another 4 million who are displaced elsewhere within the country.

Well educated despite a life on the move, Mabe says he followed with intense interest the peace talks that in January brought an end to the 21-year civil war in South Sudan, an area that has known more war than peace in the last half century.

He always dreamed of coming back and was convinced, "despite all the ups and downs, that there would be peace in the end."

Still, as he fathered 11 children and saw his first wife die, he was conscious of every passing year. "Being in exile for so long, you can't plan," he says. "I feel I lost part of my life."

He came back from the DRC to the Yei area nearly a year ago - accompanied by his 25-year-old daughter Sabina and her baby - and immediately set to work building, with his own hands, a mud-brick house for his family.

His second wife and 10 of his 11 children are still back in DRC, waiting for UNHCR to provide transportation home and give them some small aid to re-establish their life in South Sudan.

Like all returnees, they will face a difficult life at first. The rains have been late this year, and crop failures have driven up prices in Yei markets.

"It has been very rough up to now," says Father Simon Khamis, a Roman Catholic priest working in the community. "The whole population of men is not coping well at all at the moment. They feel their future is ruined. The men are traumatized because they feel they can't do much for their families. A lot of them take to alcohol."

Women are the main breadwinners these days, but they work hard for their meagre income. To profit from the building boom around Yei, women set out early in the morning, walk 8 km to cut grass for thatched roofs, cart it all the way back on their heads and sell it for the equivalent of 25 US cents.

To help alleviate unemployment, UNHCR is financially supporting vocational training centres, in addition to other projects - such as reconstructing schools and health clinics - to redevelop South Sudan for the benefit of the local communities as well as returnees.

"We are now preparing a number of income-generating projects which will be vital in helping people in South Sudan re-establish their lives, and should contribute to the general economic growth," says Vincent Chordi, head of UNHCR's operations in South Sudan.

Although South Sudan strikes an outsider as desperately poor, Mabe is philosophical about what he sees around him. "Poverty is when you can't maintain yourself at the level of other people," he muses. "Here everybody's poor. So there is a kind of poverty, but everyone's the same."

And don't count him among the men who've found their return home discouraging. He's firmly focused on the work ahead, making a comfortable home and growing crops for his loved ones.

"When I build my family, I am helping to build my country," he says, casting affectionate eyes on his daughter Sabina, who sits in the corner of their bare new home, cradling her baby, two-year-old Agnes.

Sabina's optimism is unbounded. "I am happy to come back," she says shyly. "Life is going to be easy because we have come back to our own country."

By Kitty McKinsey
In Yei