NGERJEBI, 24 November 2008 (IRIN) - Albano Tombek is proud of his new thatch hut. "It's good to be back," said Tombek, chief of the Southern Sudanese farming community in Ngerjebi, 50km south of the regional capital Juba.
After 20 years of civil war that devastated the region and caused many to flee to neighbouring Uganda, the people of Ngerjebi are coming home.
"But there is very much we need: water, better health services, a school, all these are problems," Tombek said.
An assessment made soon after the 2005 peace deal estimated that some four million people had been displaced in the South by the 21-year war with the North. Villagers took refuge in surrounding hills when the fighting neared, but most fled for good when Ugandan rebels ransacked and burnt the village in 1998.
"Facilities are very bad and we have little support," said David Tartiso, taking a break from teaching a dozen children in an open classroom - benches of rough branches under a tree.
"We try and teach the children, but we can only provide up to the third year of primary school," added Tartiso, who claims he has yet to receive a government salary.
Last month the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that some 1.7 million people had returned.
Many more are expected to return to their original areas ahead of a historic 2011 referendum that will give the South the choice of unity with the North or full independence.
Basic services under pressure
The influx has put an extra burden upon the authorities, already struggling to provide basic services to the population.
Much of the work to help those newly returned to Sudan has therefore fallen on the host communities.
A recent report by the Humanitarian Policy Group, part of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think-tank, warned it was adding extra pressure on a region already struggling to develop after years of war.
"Additional stress is accumulating on what is already a deeply fragile and uncertain peace agreement," the September report warned. "The obligation to focus more effectively on supporting the determinants for successful return, reintegration and recovery has never been higher."
The IOM estimated that some 60 percent of families are headed by single women, while 59 percent of the returnees are children aged five to 17.
"We sell bags of charcoal and firewood, because we haven't got enough to eat," said one woman by the side of the road. "The crops we have planted will not be enough this year: it was too hard clearing the land in time," she added.
While many were supported in their return, others came back on their own - posing "enormous challenges" for the authorities and international agencies that hope to support them, according to the IOM.
It is running a "tracking project", aimed to provide detailed understanding of people's needs.
Meeting the challenge
Government authorities are also working to support the returnees, but it is a giant task - a fact Southern President Salva Kiir readily acknowledges.
"We need to do more," Kiir told political leaders in Juba earlier this month, "particularly in women's and children's health, combating poverty, provision of basic services - primary education, primary health [and] clean drinking water."
If basic shortages of services are tackled, experts say there is good reason for optimism - with many of those returning bringing fresh ideas, enthusiasm and skills learnt from outside.
"The potential is tremendous," the ODI added. "Returnees and residents have many ideas and are keen to be involved in the rebuilding of Southern Sudan."
But many returnees have not moved back to their original homes - remote areas often without basic services. Instead, they are choosing rapidly growing urban areas, such as Juba.
Many call for support to develop businesses, micro-credit schemes or vocational training.
"I don't want to go back to the countryside, to herd cattle," said 29-year-old Joseph Deng, who works as a part-time labourer after returning from 15 years in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. "I want to set up a mechanic's business, but I need money and some training."
Others, however, are more bitter. "We thought that when we come back we would have schools and jobs," said Mary Agok, who spent the war in a camp outside the Northern capital Khartoum.
The Southern leadership meanwhile asks for more time, but says it can deliver.
"The expectations of our people are high," Kiir said in a recent speech, highlighting the improvements the South has made since the end of the war. "But I am confident that with the level of progress I am seeing today, we will be able to live up to their expectations."
Many are also concerned about insecurity in a region where automatic rifles are plentiful and cheap.
"Raiders came and took two of our children, but we gave chase and got them back," Tombek said.
"While there is enough stability in the country to allow significant levels of return, persistent insecurity in a number of areas means that many people are not free to choose where to settle, and many more are delaying their return," the ODI report added.