Sudan + 1 more

Field diary: In Sudan, a long wait for the journey home to South Sudan

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By Priyanka Khanna

More than six months after the secession of South Sudan, thousands of South Sudanese are still trying to make the journey southward. The United Nations estimates that nearly 700,000 people of South Sudanese origin remain in Sudan, anxious to leave before the April deadline. Priyanka Khanna travelled to Kosti Way Station, the main departure point, to report on the situation for families heading south.

KOSTI, Sudan, 1 February 2012 – A raggedy doll is all that 18-year-old Sabina Saisa has left to remind her of her best friend, Jacqueline.

Sabina, Jacqueline and their families had arrived at Kosti Way Station in June 2011 to start the journey to their new homeland – South Sudan. Jacqueline left in late December aboard an overcrowded Nile River barge travelling to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

“I was hoping Jacqueline and I would stay together. But now she is gone, and I have no idea where, and I don’t know when I will be able to go,” said Sabina.

Sabina is one of thousands of southerners – estimates range from 9,000 to 14,000 – enduring a long and uncomfortable wait around the crowded way station, the main departure point. The port is meant to accommodate only 2,000 people, and all its facilities are greatly overstretched.

Yet movement of people has been excruciatingly slow, here and at other departure points, where thousands more are stranded.

Uncertain future

Six months after South Sudan’s independence, nearly 700,000 people of South Sudanese origin remain in Sudan. Because of recent legislation, many have lost or may lose their Sudanese nationality, and must acquire South Sudanese nationality by 8 April 2012, a deadline set by Khartoum. They have little choice but to travel south to obtain proper documentation. Southerners wishing to maintain their livelihoods in Sudan must acquire both South Sudanese nationality and proper residency status in Sudan.

Some may have difficulty proving their entitlement to either nationality. But those without proper documentation risk having uncertain legal status in their country of residence, potential loss of access to protections and services, or other possible penalties.

UN agencies are advocating that governments of both countries establish procedures to make it easier for southerners to acquire South Sudanese citizenship and permission to live and work in Sudan.

Meanwhile, non-government organizations and UN agencies – including the International Organization for Migration (IOM), United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP) and UNICEF – are working with limited resources to meet travellers’ needs.

Acute shortages

Conditions weigh heavily on those at Kosti, where newborn babies have named ‘Meena’, meaning port, and ‘Toub’, meaning tired – reflections of their families’ hardship. “There are acute shortages of water, food, blankets, sanitation and so on. We are using up our savings waiting here,” said community leader Stephan Badidi.

Young children have suffered more than most. With no provision for schools, children are missing out on education, and many have fallen ill. Two-year-old Dona Simon fell sick in August and is now being treated at a UNICEF-supported nutrition centre.

Among those who find a place on the IOM-supported barges, there is visible relief.

“I know it won’t be easy to start a new life but I am hopeful,” said Ragena Okage, a 40-year-old mother and a security volunteer on the barge. “I will form women’s groups just like the ones in the camps here,” she said.

Still, she has her work cut out for her. The journey takes approximately three weeks, and barges have been packed with over 2,000 people.

After two children died during a recent voyage, UNICEF-supported NGOs began delivering orientations on barge safety, hygiene and water safety. And the most vulnerable are being flown to Juba, avoiding the dangerous journey; 12-year-old Victoria Patrice, diagnosed with both malaria and typhoid, was removed from a barge moments before it sailed.

Temporary relief

Travellers’ frustration is palpable, especially following recent reports of ethnic clashes in South Sudan.

But a child-friendly space, established by community members with UNICEF support, offers temporary relief. The space provides a safe place for children to play, draw, sing, dance and learn.

“I bring my son here and make sure every child in my neighbourhood comes here,” said Hanan John, 30.

This community spirit is giving the people in Kosti hope.

Sabina is the latest to volunteer at the child-friendly space, helping children cope with the uncertainty ahead. “Together,” she said, “we shall overcome.”