PHOTO | AFP. A Sudanese woman stands next to packed belongings in Khartoum on October 27, 2010 as internally displaced Sudanese from the south prepare to return home. South Sudan is due to hold a referendum on southern independence on January 9, 2011.
Buses piled high with household goods streamed out of the Sudanese capital on Thursday as thousands of southerners driven from their homes by years of war flocked home to join in a historic vote on their region's future.
The 2005 peace deal which ended Africa's longest-running conflict does not require southerners to be in south Sudan to vote in the January 9 referendum on whether it remains part of the continent's largest nation or breaks away to form the world's youngest independent state.
But tens of thousands of southerners have been taking advantage of a repatriation scheme funded by the region's interim autonomous government to return to native towns or villages which they fled during the two-decade-long civil war in which an estimated two million people died.
The 25-million-dollar "Come Home to Choose" scheme forsees as many as 1.5 million people returning to the south from the north and thousands have been queuing at offices in the capital to register.
"I'm going back to Bentiu for good," Kazou, a young southerner who has scraped a living in Khartoum for years, told AFP at one of the main departure points for the fleets of buses heading south.
"I won't be returning to Khartoum. I'm joining the rest of my family," he said as he prepared to begin the long journey south to Bentiu, capital of Unity state, an oil producing area vital to the southern economy.
For some it will be their first acquaintance with a region they have never seen.
"I'm going to Bentiu for the very first time -- I was born here in Khartoum," said Angelina, a little girl waiting to board a bus with her family.
The buses are paid for by the southern government but officials are at pains to stress that there is no ulterior political motive to the subsidy and that would-be returnees can travel home for free regardless of whether they intend to vote for unity or for independence.
"People just want to go home -- they're not interested in talk of the problems involved in organising the referendum, or of the choice between unity and independence," said Abdullah Kam Gai, vice chairman of the repatriation committee for Unity state, in Khartoum to oversee the mass return.
"All they want is to grow their crops, to catch their fish and to graze their herds," he said.
Last month Information Minister Kamal Obeid sparked panic among the hundreds of thousands of southerners still living in the north with a warning that they stood to lose their citizenship if the south voted to break away.
His comments were later disavowed by President Omar al-Bashir but not before they had sparked an outcry.
"We take it very seriously when government ministers say things like that," said Archbishop Daniel Deng, primate of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, who counts many southerners among his flock.
"It is the beginning of problems for our country."
The 2005 peace deal provides for anyone who can prove southern origins to have a vote in the January referendum.
But for the many southerners in the north who lack an official birth certificate that could be problematic and many are heading south before voter registration begins on November 14.
For a region still blighted by decades of conflict and under-development, reintegrating the returnees is a massive undertaking and for some southerners the opportunities just do not exist to lure them home.
Peter, a student at Khartoum University whose family has lived in the capital since the late 1980s, said he would not be joining the exodus to the south but stressed that did not mean he opposed independence for the region.