Ethiopia - Sudan: "It is time to return to the motherland"

Report
from The New Humanitarian
Published on 22 Jun 2007
BONGA, 22 June 2007 (IRIN) - For many years, Waskan Munya has followed the same Saturday afternoon routine - chatting with his fellow refugees while one of his two wives prepared dinner.

"I did not expect the camp to be my home for 14 years," he said. "I am happy that finally it is time to return to my motherland, Sudan."

Munya is one of thousands of Southern Sudanese refugees who have been living in camps in Gambella regional state, Ethiopia, but are now preparing for repatriation back home.

The recent onset of rains has, however, delayed the returns because the convoys cannot make the three-day journey from Bonga camp to Kurmuk, Blue Nile state, under wet conditions. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has so far organised 10 such convoys this year, now hopes Munya and others can travel in October.

"The Sudanese government burnt my house," the 45-year-old father of four said. "They beat people, but I escaped with my family."

In 1984, his farming community in Southern Sudan was dispersed in an attack by government forces fighting rebels. Munya fled to Assosa in Ethiopia. Three years later he moved to Itang, where he stayed for a year before settling in Bonga refugee camp in Gambella.

"I heard that there is now peace," said Kelif Ali, 48, a farmer, who like Munya fled Blue Nile state of Southern Sudan years ago. "I want to go back."

Ali, who was living with his five children and one wife in Bonga camp, said he was eager to return with his family and begin a new life as a farmer, but felt the same anxieties as Munya.

The returnees receive non-food items such as plastic sheets, buckets, mats, kitchen sets and mosquito nets from UNHCR, while the UN World Food Programme hands out food packs for three months. The refugee agency's staff also monitor the welfare of the returnees during the rainy season.

Camp closures

According to Estifanos Gebremedhin, head of the Gambella sub-office of the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), a government department that provides protection and basic services to refugees living in Ethiopia, the return of the refugees has led to the closure of some camps, such as Yarenja.

Established in 2001, Yarenja, in Benishangul Gumuz regional state, hosted about 4,000 Sudanese refugees. It was one of five such camps. The other four, namely Bonga, Pugnido and Dimma in Gambella regional state, and Sherkole in Benishangul Gumuz, are expected to close once the refugees are fully repatriated by 2009, according to Estifanos.

The Ethiopian government is planning to convert Bonga into a farmers' training centre and Pugnido into a local resettlement area.

Worries over delay

For Munya and Kelif, the return home should herald a new life. While Bonga had been home, tensions with local host communities had limited the amount of farmland at their disposal. Other amenities such as decent schools for the many children in the camp and water were equally hard to find.

"They are worried because the repatriation has stopped," said Bulus Nonko, 29, chairman of Bonga camp, who has only just completed Grade 10 in the camp school. "We tell them that it is due to the rain."

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.

UNHCR has helped more than 55,000 Sudanese refugees return home from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Uganda, Kenya, Egypt and Ethiopia. In addition, more than 137,000 Sudanese refugees have returned by their own means.

According to Nonko, some of the refugees were so anxious to leave the camp that they sought money from relatives and left of their own accord. Others such as Munya were content to wait until October.

There was also a group that wanted to stay a little longer, including Nonko, who arrived in Ethiopia when he was only eight. Over the years, he saw his mother die and his father and brothers return to Sudan.

"Those who want to stay have a right to remain here as they do not have to return," said Estifanos.

tw/eo/mw

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