When I told some friends that I was doing a story on the 40,000 South Sudanese stranded at departure points in miserable conditions across Khartoum, the response I got was: “Really? I didn’t know there were still southerners here, we never see them anymore, in the market, in the street, or anywhere.”
Once at the heart of Sudan’s vibrant multicultural identity, these southerners who have been waiting for buses to arrive to take them south for more than two years, are like ghosts in this country now. Officially no longer Sudanese, they lost their citizenship rights and jobs following independence in 2011. Their kids – who were mostly born here - are no longer able to go to school. And they are not yet properly South Sudanese citizens yet as they don’t have the money to get there.
I have many friends here who were deeply upset to see their multi-cultural Sudan being ripped apart by the South’s secession. Although Sudan remains a mixed country of many peoples and religions, until the split, the Arab-Muslim north could not claim to represent it all while a large part of the country was both African and Christian. But the reality was, once southerners voted overwhelmingly for independence in the 2011 referendum, both governments expected them to go.
At the time, many southerners I spoke to told me they felt they had no choice but to leave Khartoum. Although it had been home to many since the civil war began in the 1980s, the vast majority of them have opted to go.
Initially, there was help. At first Sudan and South Sudan funded the cost of transport, along with international aid agencies. Many thousands of the some two million southerners, who have left the north since the 2005 peace deal, returned this way. But then the money ran out, leaving those last in the queue, stranded.
Both governments are now in financial crises. They are unlikely to find the $20m it will cost to airlift these people to the south – the road is no longer an option because of conflict on the border.
Western donor governments, without whom the South Sudan would probably not have secured its independence, pour billions of dollars annually into these two countries through UN peacekeeping missions and through aid. They are the obvious source of help. But as yet Khartoum’s 40,000 southerners have not made it onto their priority list.
They may be stranded, forgotten and have no political voice to represent them - and they may be living in horrendous conditions. But the international aid budget has virtually halved in the last year and there are many competing needs. Darfur is again unstable and underfunded, and the recent flooding in Sudan means thousands of people here are now homeless. But unless they do help, these people seemed destined to remain living in limbo - belonging to neither the north or the south - for some time to come.
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