“There was bombing and shelling, soldiers. My children kept saying, ‘What’s happening?’” Nyanareng, a 28-year-old mother of four, didn’t have time for long explanations when violence struck Abyei, a disputed border town between Sudan and South Sudan. She just told her children to run.
“We walked five days on foot. We’d dig in the ground for water,” she said. It was May 2011, and hot in the bush. Her children survived. But her mother died of exhaustion.
“We weren’t allowed to bury my mother in Touralei, so we came here, to Agok.”
South Sudanese have often been the people nobody wants. Sometimes they’re shuffled from refugee camps to way-stations to transit areas. Or they’re targets, running from bombs and bullets, trying not to get separated from their children or wives or husbands.
After a decades-long civil war, South Sudan is now its own country, a nation getting its people back. A huge fraction of the population are “returnees,” people sent back from camps in neighbouring countries or those who voluntarily came back to their homeland, tired of being second-class citizens elsewhere because of race or religion.
But right now, many returnees have nowhere to go and no way to earn a living. In Agok, where most of Abyei’s citizens fled, more than 120,000 people live in small thatched huts on dusty, sunbaked bushland. In the capital, Juba, 8000 people wait in a transit camp, not sure if they can find relatives who will take them in. In the southeast corner of the country, people who came back from years in Ugandan refugee camps struggle to cut down overgrowth on their farms—and can’t farm fields that now have landmines planted in them.
A large number of returnees are widows or army wives raising not just their own children, but those of relatives who were killed. “One of my brother’s wives was killed by an Antonov. She was pregnant with twins,” said Pia Kiwa, who lives in a southeastern town called Isoke. “Their father was collecting food in Uganda, met the rebels and was shot. He was in a lorry and there was crossfire.” Pia is taking care of three of her sister-in-law’s children, along with the children of her husband’s other wife, now dead – victim of cholera. More than a dozen children are under her care; her husband has been away for years in the military.
In places where returnees have nothing, Caritas distributes emergency items and shelter materials. “Everyone scattered” when the violence in Abyei began, remembers Maria Maluke, who now lives in Agok. “My husband and two men ran in one direction. The children and I ran in another.” Maria saw her older sister and three-year-old niece die as the family tried to escape, and searched eight days for her own husband before learning he was killed. As thousands of families slept outside, Caritas worked with a local priest, Father Biong Kwol, providing aid. “Father Biong gave us plastic sheeting, kangas [cloth], soap, and mosquito nets,” says Maria.
Caritas also gave out poles and other items so people could built traditional thatch huts. Nyanareng, the young woman who was not allowed to bury her mother elsewhere, received a shelter kit on the same day she gave birth to her son. Her baby Ajing has real home—perhaps temporary, but safe.
At the Juba transit camp, Caritas provides shelter in other ways. “The International Organisation for Migration [IOM] called us up and said, ‘We need volunteers, how many can you get?’” says Ilse Simma, Caritas coordinator. Caritas Juba reached out to local churches and, within an hour, mobilised volunteers to construct large IOM tents for busloads of returnees that IOM flew to Juba from Khartoum. “Our brothers and sisters in Khartoum have been suffering a lot,” said Caritas volunteer Gismala Gift. “When they came here, we sang to them. They feel they are welcome. Some of them cried because they are seeing South Sudan.”
In some cases, returnees are reunited with long-lost loved ones. Joska Achayo was eight when she had to flee her home near Isoke and was separated from her mother. She spent years with relatives as a refugee in Uganda. Now 25, Joska is back in her native area, where Caritas is giving villagers seeds and farming tools so they can grow enough to feed their families.
Sometime after her return, Joska met a woman on the road. “I asked her for help in finding my mother,” said Joska. “I didn’t recognise her.
“Then I realized it was my mother! We started crying tears of joy.”
South Sudan’s returnees have a perilous road ahead of them. Cast out by some countries, unsure how they will live in their own nation, many returning families feel alone. By providing shelter, farming help, educational support and more, Caritas is working to make their transition a little easier.
Many returnees also draw strength from their faith. “It was difficult,” said Nyanareng, remembering both her mother’s death and then the near-famine her family survived last fall. “But we trust in God.”
“If not for God I don’t know how we would have made it here,” said Bernadette Wani. She and her family reached the Juba transit camp in May 2012 after enduring a year at a waystation for Sudan’s unwanted. “We’re rejected by these people, but God won’t reject us.”