Women do their laundry after disembarking at the Juba river port. The journey from Khartoum down the River Nile is a 15-day trip. People arrived with their most precious belongings, which included cars, beds, and even horses. Photos by Karina O'Meara/Catholic Relief Services

by Karina O’Meara as told to Sara A. Fajardo

It was mid-morning when we arrived to the Juba River Port last week and it was jostling with the sounds of people unloading bedding, horses, cars, and cooking supplies, from the four open-air containers that flanked a large passenger boat.

An estimated 700 people had made the up to 15-day journey from Khartoum and Kosti to reach southern Sudan’s largest city. Each day thousands of people have been flooding into Juba and other main cities throughout southern Sudan, in the lead up to the referendum vote. People arrive on boats, planes, and buses daily.

The International Organization of Migration (IOM) calculates that around 116,000 Sudanese returned from the northern Sudan to southern Sudan in the past two months through Government organised returns and an additional 49,000 through voluntary returns.

Each brings with them their most prized possessions. One little girl in a sun-bleached pale orange dress, maybe around 11, clutched a well-traveled wooden desk so as there was no confusion as to the owner.

I’ve been reading the numbers on returnees, I get the daily updates, but it wasn’t until I saw that boat that it really struck me how much people are enduring to arrive here. The boat was two stories high, but with 700 passengers, I imagined that in order to lie down people must have slept in shifts.

They all brought with them bags of provisions such as lentils and flour that they prepared along their journey. These were far from luxury accommodation– the boat was made up of small-rooms with unscreened metal bars for windows.

At the port, people were everywhere, unloading their items quickly, I had to be nimble on my feet in order to avoid being hit by bed frames, boxes, or gardening equipment. Some women stooped by the river to launder their clothes, children were using 12 m long poles to pluck the ripe mangos from the trees that lined the banks, while others fed the horses, who unfortunately, for them, were the last ones to leave the barge.

I scanned the faces of these passengers and realized they’ve left everything the barge couldn’t carry to start anew. Each and every one of these passengers is going to need some type of assistance. The children all speak Arabic but the schools here are taught in English. The men need jobs. These families need shelter.

A lot of these new arrivals will go to live with relatives. On the outside it might look like there’s no crisis, but the truth is the families are in serious crisis. Many people here are barely getting by. Just imagine if you were a family of five and suddenly 20 relatives show up and you’re responsible for them? That’s what it’s like in southern Sudan.

The work ahead for agencies like Caritas and CRS, the local government, and for the people themselves is huge. There is still much left to be done.

Karina O’Meara is a CRS Business Development and Communications Programme in Manager in Juba, Sudan.