Tough homecoming to war-ravaged south Sudan
NGERJEBI, Sudan (AFP) — It is hard work coming home when your country was at war for two decades.
Homes must be built from scratch, fields for crops cut where the wild and tough bush has grown, and warning signs erected in areas with landmines.
"Lack of food is the biggest problem," said Josephine Mayo, a farmer who returned in January to the southern Sudan village she abandoned in 1998 when two of her children were killed in fighting and the settlement burnt.
Ngerjebi, a small farming community in lush countryside some 30 miles (50 kilometres) from Juba, the capital of semi-autonomous southern Sudan, is typical of many villages across this grossly under-developed region.
Four million people were displaced from or within south Sudan, according to assessments made after the 2005 peace that ended 21 years of civil war by joining the southern rebel leadership with the Arab-led north in government.
The displaced are now coming home.
Around 1.7 million have returned, according to an October report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and life is far from easy.
Many complain of insecurity in a region awash with guns and militia remnants and -- three years after the peace deal was signed -- an exhausting lack of services despite the south's sizeable oil revenue.
It's a situation worrying some deeply.
A British think tank, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), recently warned of "growing concern" about the need to support the returnees.
"The challenge lies not simply in avoiding fresh violence, but in preventing the emergence of a future failing state", a report said.
While acknowledging that peace has held despite the challenges of coping with a giant influx of people, most have been left "extremely vulnerable" to disturbances or shocks, the ODI said.
"Opportunities for citizens to be economically independent have been slow to develop and large numbers have not yet benefited from economic growth."
The same complaints are heard repeatedly on the ground.
"We are lacking basic services -- health services, water, a proper school," said Albano Tombek, the 45-year-old Ngerjebi chief, who returned to an empty village in March.
Peace has brought changes for some as the region opens up to trade, but much of south Sudan -- an area bigger than Spain and Portugal combined but with few miles (kilometres) of paved roads -- remains extremely remote.
"I'm happy to be home but there are big challenges ahead," Josephine said. She talked wearily about caring for 20 relatives, including her children and those of family members killed in the war.
"There is not enough food. We could not plant many crops because we had to build our homes, and we also had few tools and seeds," she added, waving at the scattered collection of thatch huts and small patches of crops.
Most of those returning are also the poorest. The IOM estimates 60 percent are families headed by single women and that 59 percent are children aged between five and 17 -- many going to ancestral homes for the first time.
Those who built a successful life outside, during the long years of war, are those with the education and skills most needed to develop this damaged region.
But many of them are reluctant to return with families to a land without health services and education, fearing instability ahead of a 2011 referendum that could see the south of Africa's largest country secede.
"I'm just visiting relatives but I'm still based in Kenya," said businessman Joseph Achak.
"Some businessmen are back, but there are not the schools for my children like they have in Nairobi ... After independence I'll return for good."
Some of those who have come back say they were deeply disappointed when they arrived. Many prefer to remain in the city.
"I heard that there were would be health services and electricity, but there was nothing," said William Lado, 26, who grew up in a camp in northern Sudan. Now Lado drives a motorbike taxi in Juba.
"There are no jobs in the countryside, nothing to do," he said.
Some are bitter at what they complain is gross corruption by government officials, newly savouring the taste of power. Others fume that social spending is docked in favour of the military.
Last month southern lawmakers approved a 980-million-dollar top-up to the 1.5-billion-dollar annual budget, blamed largely on massive military overspending.
"Reintegration has as a result put additional pressure on an already under-served and economically poor resident population," the ODI said.
"It has also exposed fundamental weaknesses in the fledgling regional government, and in the work of international agencies."
Government authorities say they are working hard to support those returning, but that they face a giant task.
"People have high expectations, but we have been frank with them about the situation," said Stans Yatta, state director of the South Sudan Refugee and Rehabilitation Commission for Central Equatoria state.
"No one is forcing anyone to stay or to go; it is their decision."
Yatta said it was hard to provide all services before people arrived, since it was only then that the needs were clear.
"The war is over and we are rebuilding the country, and people need to come back to their lands and participate in that," Yatta added.
"How can you start schools when there is no one there, or build water boreholes if there is no one to drink from them but the monkeys?"