The returnees board the dozen or so buses bound for their ancestral home – a village called Torit. They are for the most part women and children. Some are jubilant, others are apprehensive. Some sing as their vehicles leave the South Sudan capital, Juba, while others sit in resigned silence, afraid for what the future holds.
For Sabrine Kennedy, 25, the return is choc-a-bloc with hope. Kennedy was born in Khartoum during Sudan’s north-south civil war that ended in 2005, but she is considered to be South Sudanese. She embraces this new identity and these final hours of homecoming are nothing less than exquisite. “I was so happy when I came back to South Sudan that I wanted to fly to the heavens,” she says. “Khartoum is beautiful but here is home.”
Sabrine’s younger sister Bisman, 21, feels the opposite. She does long to see her mother in Torit, but at the same time she worries about the future of her country – which marked its first anniversary on July 9 – as well as her own. “There is no work in Torit,” she says. “There is nothing.”
South Sudan celebrated its birthday even as its citizens continue to come back to the fledgling country. But returning to an ancestral homeland is not as easy as it may appear. The journey is long and layered with complexities that go far beyond the logistics of their journey. In short, homecoming is often fraught with uncertainty. UNHCR continues to work vigorously to ensure that all – especially the most vulnerable – are protected.
The bus ride from Juba is the last movement of a return journey from Khartoum that 12,000 returnees began a year ago. For months, they stayed in a way station on the banks of the White Nile River near a village called Kosti. Between May 14 and June 10, they were flown to Juba by the UNHCR’s partner, the International Organization for Migration. At the Juba transit centre they await the final leg of their trek.
“We have elderly households, single parents with children, unaccompanied minors, separated children, you name it they are all here,” says Jovich Zaric, a UNHCR camp manager at the transit centre. “Our main job is to identify them and to make sure that there is a good follow up and referral system for these people. We work with the government and the international community.”
As the buses depart, Zanaab Fani, 68 years of age, lay in a tent trying unsuccessfully to suckle her two-year-old grandchild. Fani’s daughter is dead and the father is nowhere to be found. There is also an older boy aged five. But the old woman has a multitude of ailments and she is too weak to walk.
Zaric is worried. “She claims she has a family, but we’re not sure. What if she ends up in her new village and has no support? What if the chief of her village says he doesn’t know her? She’s incredibly vulnerable,” he says. “We need to make sure that she is well before she travels. We need to do something to help her with these children and we need to find someone who will help her with shelter once she arrives.”
Another woman who has just arrived with the convoy says that she is not South Sudanese but Ugandan. She claims that her husband, whom she was forced to marry at age 13, has left her with three children. Zaric works to arrange an interview at the Ugandan embassy to see if she can verify her claim. “Slowly we enter the true destinies of these people.” He says. “Our real work begins here.”
Zaric won’t hesitate to intervene if he senses that something is wrong. A few weeks ago he received word about a 13-year-old and her five-year-old brother who had just arrived in Juba and were to be taken into the custody of their uncle. The girl claimed that the uncle was beating her.
An investigation showed “that it was an obvious domestic violence case,” says Zaric, who was also concerned that the girl might be sold into forced marriage. The children were taken from the uncle, and UNHCR together with its partners is searching for a safe haven for them until other more appropriate family members can be found.
In many ways, for these returnees a sense of home can be found not in a place but in a feeling of mutual fate that thrives among them. Their journey has taken long enough for social bonds to develop and flourish. One group of returnees of various ethnic and geographical backgrounds petitioned the government of South Sudan to grant them an area of land so that they could return as a single village. The bonds created out of survival and common company are stronger than promises of ancestral home.
By Greg Beals in Juba, South Sudan (unhcr)