By the end of hostilities in the decades-long civil war that engulfed Southern Sudan, most residents of Magwi County had long since fled. Nearly 450,000 Southerners had taken refuge in surrounding nations by 2005. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 330,000 have since returned home, allowing nine refugee camps in Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, to close.
Some 100,000 refugees have resettled in Magwi alone, giving it one of the highest influx of returnees anywhere in Southern Sudan, about half under the UNHCR returnee assistance programme. Most are ethnic Acholis who had fled into Uganda in the 1990s.
"I remember going out there in November 2007, and outside Magwi town, there just weren't a lot of humanitarian agencies on the ground in those areas," recalls Steven Loegering, head of the World Food Programme (WFP) Equatoria office. "So they were already 18 months to two years behind in getting settled down and getting any type of assistance compared to the rest of the country."
For the time being, the goal for the returnee families has been achieving a level of basic subsistence - still proving elusive for most. Under the resettlement programme, the returnees are given a three-month food supply, but for many this has not been enough. UNHCR estimates that fewer than 30 percent of returnee households have reached a subsistence level; in many cases, it could be much less. One returnee told IRIN that two children died recently from eating a poisonous root while scavenging for an extra meal.
However, Loegering said food security was not a problem restricted to the returnees. "Even if they had received enough tools, even if they had received enough seeds, even if they'd figured out the land tenure problem and found some place to have enough confidence to plant their food, the last crop failed - for everybody," he says.
WFP has designated Magwi County one of three areas most at need in Eastern Equatoria. At present, 12,500 people receive food assistance, a number likely to rise, predicts Loegering. The NGO Catholic Relief Services has also given emergency three-month food rations to 45,000 people, but this aid is due to discontinue this month due to budgetary constraints.
Food security is but one of the challenges facing the returnees. Adequate healthcare is also often lacking, as the county has only one hospital, near the Ugandan border.
"The hospitals in this area are not okay and the people are too many," says Ochan Otto Johnson, who was only four years old when his family fled across the Ugandan border in 1994. "Also, there are water problems because there is a shortage of boreholes in the community. People have a lot of problems in that they are using rivers that can bring typhoid and other diseases."
Although relatively free of the insecurity plaguing some of the region, Magwi has not been immune to the inter-ethnic strife. The county commissioner said his region had 11,000 IDPs from the vast Jonglei state to the north, where ethnic violence has escalated in the past year. He said most are willing to go back home if given proper assistance but that discussions with Jonglei authorities to facilitate this return are still ongoing.
The returnees are also finding that they are not always welcomed by fellow community members who stayed put. The refugees in Uganda often come back with knowledge of English and other professional skill sets that those left behind in the midst of the conflict never acquired.
"There is difficulty in finding work because people get different skills from outside. Then they reach here and they write an application, but the people who were here say, 'No, although we are not educated, because we fought in this war, we need to stay here,'" explains Otto.
Otto is the eldest of eight siblings. Despite all the grim challenges he and his kin are facing, his outlook for the future is decidedly hopeful. The recent political peace offers them hope for a stable future.