South Sudanese shrug off home hardships to vote
By Jeremy Clarke
JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Dario Cecilia has had nowhere to sleep and little to eat since she returned to her south Sudan homeland to take part in its independence referendum. Like thousands around her, she is not complaining.
"All I have had today is one cup of tea, not even any water, but I am happy," said Cecilia, sitting on the bank of the river Nile in the southern capital Juba. "I am back home at last."
As many as 50,000 southern exiles have flocked back to make sure their votes count in the January 9 plebiscite on whether the region should declare independence or stay in Sudan. Many fear intimidation, reprisals or vote-rigging in the north.
Southerners are allowed to vote in the north and referendum centres have also been set up in eight countries outside Sudan.
But Southern leaders accused the north of plotting to rig the vote and started encouraging exiles to return and make their choice inside the south's borders.
A large number came back on convoys organised by south Sudan's semi-autonomous government. But, when they arrived, they found little waiting for them in terms of food, shelter and basic public services.
Cecilia, 39, left the northern capital Khartoum with two young children and seven other family members a month ago, finishing the last leg of her journey on a river barge.
"Coming home was the most important thing for us," she said, gesturing to returnees lying in makeshift shacks around her.
"We never felt safe in Khartoum. There was never any work for us so we couldn't support our families ... Here I already feel secure," she added, surrounded by the plastic bags holding all her possessions.
Analysts expect most southerners to choose independence in the vote, a poll that was promised as part of a 2005 peace accord ending decades of civil war with the south.
An estimated four million southerners fled the fighting, hundreds of thousands of them taking shelter in ramshackle slums and refugee camps around Khartoum.
Now that they are back in the underdeveloped south, the living conditions for many of them are, if anything, worse.
Across town, Lucia Thomas Loro was one of a group of returnees standing under a tree in an abandoned playground, waiting for the arrival of the U.N. food delivery truck.
Loro, a 58-year-old English teacher, was born in Juba and fled in 1989 during the war. She tried to return once in 1992 but "everywhere was still the sounds of gunfire".
"(This time) I came for independence, and I am tired and fed up of life in Khartoum," said the mother-of-four.
The authorities have had problems keeping up with the large numbers answering the call to return.
"We have given 15 million (Sudanese) pounds for the returns ... This money has been exhausted now, mainly by transport," said Mary Nyok, director general for the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC).
Last week, the United Nations appealed for $32 million for emergency food, shelter and sanitation for the 50,000 that have already arrived. It expects 150,000 people to return from the north by March.
Nyok said the south was also trying to raise funds to transport people to their original homes in remote areas.
"Wherever there is a huge movement of people, there are going to be problems. We have a taskforce meeting with them and there are some complaints," she said. "But these people know we are doing our best. They want to be here, they insisted."