Tue, Jan 25, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Returnig refugees find little is left of their former lives


Elizabeth Adak Shindu paid a high price to return home. She walked for 30 days, endured hunger and disease, and used her life savings. When she finally reached this sprawling, dusty town, she found another family living on her land.

Full of hope, thousands like Shindu have started making their way back to southern Sudan as Africa's longest running civil war ends. They are returning to a land of torched villages, farms riddled with land mines, ransacked schools -- and little help to begin anew.

More than 4 million people fled their homes during 21 years of fighting which left this vast region of grasslands, forests, mountains and swamps one of the poorest in the world. Some found sanctuary in neighboring countries, but most have been living in the government-held north where they make up the world's largest displaced population.

UN officials expect as many as 1.2 million people to return this year after the Arab Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum signed a peace deal with rebels fighting for more autonomy in the mostly African Christian and animist south. But the devastated towns and villages they left behind can't cope with an influx that size, warned Vincent Chordi, head of the UN refugee agency in southern Sudan.

"We know of places where 100 people arrive a day from the north," said UN humanitarian spokesman Ben Parker. "They miss home. They want to make an early start in getting their land, building their houses and reconnecting with their lives down here."

In a region lacking basic infrastructure, UN officials say it could take six to eight months to shift their relief effort from emergency aid to longer-term development to help rebuild the south. UN agencies have appealed for US$1.5 billion in funding for Sudan, most of it for the south.

In the meantime, the new arrivals cope as best they can.

Shindu was among an estimated 400,000 who returned last year, encouraged by progress during talks that resulted in the Jan. 9 peace deal, which provides for a national power-sharing government and autonomy in the south.

The tall, emaciated mother of nine now sits eating a handful of Marula kernels in front of her tiny grass hut in a makeshift camp built among thorny bushes and scattered palms in this town of 50,000 -- set to become the south's provisional capital. She survives, she says, by foraging for fruit, roots and leaves in the surrounding forests.

Life was slightly easier in the government-held town of Wau, 210km northeast of Rumbek, to which she fled 19 years ago when rebels attacked government troops here and killed her husband, a policeman. Shindu could make a living there washing dishes and clothes, and selling buckets of water.

Still, she says, it was worth the tortuous journey to return home.

"We had to walk for kilometers while carrying children on our backs; we had to walk for days while we were hungry; we had to sleep in the forest when we were very exhausted," Shindu said. "It was a test of our commitment to our native home -- and our faith in God."

Every step of the way, there was the fear of setting off one of the millions of land mines, unexploded grenades and shells scattered across the south.

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