Khartoum: A bus and truck convoy was taking some 3,500 South Sudanese back to their ancestral homeland from Sudan on Monday, a church leader said, in the first major repatriation for months.
But the United Nations says around 40,000 other South Sudanese are still waiting for funding to help transport them from Sudan, where they live in “appalling” conditions at Khartoum-area squatter camps.
“They already started moving,” Bishop John Kongi said of the initial group of 2,600 people who left on Monday from Kosti, south of Khartoum, in a convoy of 52 buses and 34 trucks loaded with luggage.
Kongi, of the Africa Inland Church, said he expected the remaining 900 to start their three-day road trip Monday night after their belongings were loaded.
The church organised the repatriation which is funded by overseas donors, Kongi said.
“These people, they went to Kosti probably two years ago,” said Kau Nak, deputy head of mission at South Sudan’s embassy in Khartoum.
The church last organised a repatriation in March, Kongi said.
Kosti, 300km from Khartoum, had been home to the biggest single concentration of South Sudanese needing transport to South Sudan, which became independent in July 2011.
Without money to travel themselves, many lived there in makeshift shelters or barn-like buildings.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) last year airlifted almost 12,000 South Sudanese from Kosti but called the operation exceptional because local authorities there had ordered the South Sudanese to leave after months of waiting for transport.
Those who set out by bus on Monday are part of a final group which had remained in Kosti.
Funding appeals to help move other South Sudanese “have so far gone unanswered”, the UN says on the website of its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The repatriation from Kosti is the first since a September summit between Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir and his South Sudanese counterpart Salva Kiir.
Their talks led to improved relations between the neighbours which intermittently clashed along their disputed border last year.
The summit affirmed the commitment of both sides to implement a series of economic and security pacts, including one for the free flow of people and goods across the frontier.
Another agreement provides for the nationals of each country to have rights of residence and economic activity in the other country.
But 98 per cent of South Sudanese in the Khartoum-area camps want to go immediately to South Sudan, says a recent survey cited by the UN’S OCHA.
Nak said 20,000 other South Sudanese are estimated to be in eastern Sudan.
The tens of thousands remaining are among millions who fled north during Sudan’s 22-year civil war, which ended in a 2005 peace deal that paved the way for South Sudan’s independence following an overwhelming referendum vote to separate.
Before independence, many South Sudanese began converging on “departure points” in Khartoum, where they hoped to obtain assistance to go South.
“They assumed that they would only wait a few days or weeks for the promised buses, barges and trucks that would return them to their homelands,” OCHA said.
IOM wants to fly 20,000 “most vulnerable” people from the camps to South Sudan, but this requires an estimated $20 million (Dh73 million), OCHA said.
Kongi said his church would also like to help transport the Khartoum-area southerners, if funding is available.
“We are praying for this,” he said.