With their possessions strapped to donkeys and loaded onto barges, hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese are expected to cross deserts, swamps and minefields in 2006 to return home following the end of the civil war.
Few returnees have any idea of the hardships that await them or just how badly their country was affected by the 21-year conflict.
The war in Sudan displaced four million people inside the country and scattered another 600,000 to refugee camps across East Africa.
A year after a peace agreement was signed between Sudan’s government and the Southern rebels in January 2005, roughly half a million returnees have come home.
The UN estimates that another 615,000 will make the long and often dangerous journey back to the south in 2006 after so many years away, while others are still fleeing the region as a result of inter-tribal fighting.
WFP public information officer Simon Crittle spoke to four south Sudanese about their hopes and fears for their homeland.
The journey to a new life but a familiar culture
Santino Garang and his family assemble their bedding and furniture into a makeshift shelter on a rusty barge. This will be their temporary home on a two-week journey south along the White Nile. They will share it with goats, cargo and roughly 100 other families.
Food is scarce, medical care non-existent and there are only three toilets. “You have to wait in a long line and just be patient,” laughs Garang.
Displaced by war
Like millions of other displaced southerners, Garang fled to the north of Sudan during the country’s civil war.
I decided to bring my children back so they could get to know their language and culture
He originally came from Northern Bahr El Ghazal, a Southern state which came under repeated attacks during the war from militia fighters who burned villages, stole livestock and abducted women and children.
“Many people were killed,” he says. “I saw my brothers and friends die.”
Scratching a living
Garang lived in Khartoum for 18 years, scratching out a living selling rice, salt and cooking oil in an open-air market.
His children didn’t even speak their mother tongue, Dinka, as only Arabic was taught in northern schools.
Garang says he and his family would be better off among their own people. “I decided to bring my children back so they could get to know their language and culture,” he says.
So he scraped together just enough to buy him and his family passage on the barge. “I sold my hut and my goats and decided to start a new life,” he says.
Swapping security for instability: sacrifices to rebuild Sudan
Until a few months ago, Jody Boyoris lived with his family in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where he drove a Toyota and had a steady job.
Now he lives in a tent and works under the shade of a tree. It is a sacrifice that he hopes will benefit his country.
Boyoris, 37, is now a member of parliament in a regional government. He is one of a small group of educated southern Sudanese who lived abroad during the civil war and have now returned to rebuild their shattered country.
The country is destroyed. South Sudan is not what it was. We lost a lot of people, really. My friends and relatives are gone, all gone
“It is the time for us to be here,” he says. “I am enjoying being part of the rebuilding process.”
After 12 years away, Boyoris was asked by elders from his tribe, Murle, to come back and represent them in the state of Jonglei.
He left his wife and family behind in Melbourne to take on the challenge.
“The country has such great needs. We don’t know how to start," he says. "We want to provide services to our people but we have nothing to give them. We don’t have computers, we don’t have telephones. We don’t even have toilets.”
A shocking return
Boyoris left Sudan during the war after he was arrested by internal security forces. Fearing for his life, he went to Australia where he worked for a community association for Sudanese immigrants.
When he arrived back he was shocked at what he found. “The country is destroyed. South Sudan is not what it was," he says. "We lost a lot of people, really. My friends and relatives are gone, all gone.”
Women and children left behind as men drive cattle home
Elizabeth Anyeith is one of thousands of women and children who have been kept behind for their safety as their menfolk push on toward home, driving a giant herd of cattle, which some say number more than one million.
She squats over a fire at a dusty UN-run way station outside the new southern capital, Juba. Her youngest child clings to her chest as she stirs a pot of WFP-supplied beans.
Children without milk
The mother of five says that her children are not eating enough: “They want to drink milk but they can’t because our cattle aren’t here.”
The cows belong to the Dinka Bor tribe, many of whom were displaced by fighting during the civil war and are now returning to their homeland near the town of Bor.
When you are outside your home you are just suffering
The giant herd made headlines late last year as it crossed a bridge that spans the White Nile in Juba. At the same time the weak, the sick, as well as women and children among the group of 12,000 people were trucked to the way station for their own safety.
The road to Bor remains contaminated with landmines, so the International Office of Migration will transport the women and children north by barge.
At the way station, WFP has distributed hundreds of tons of food while other UN agencies have built shelters and provided medical care. After walking for three months to get to Juba, Elizabeth is glad to finally be getting food and water regularly.
Long walk home
Her clan fled Bor in 1991 and settled further south in the state of Western Equatoria. But the region is not traditional Dinka territory, so when the peace agreement was signed in January 2006, they rounded up their cattle and began the long walk home.
“When you are outside your home you are just suffering,” she says.
Still fleeing south Sudan: inter-tribal fighting continues despite peace agreement
In the heat of the day, Simon Juma, 26, shares his mud brick hut with four other young southern Sudanese men.
Everybody says peace has been signed. But there is not really peace. If there is a raid from another tribe, there is no peace
The refugees lie still on the dirt floor, saying nothing as they wait for the sun to go down and the day when they’ll go home.
A long wait
For 15 years, Sudanese in Kakuma camp, a rugged halfway house in northwest Kenya, have been waiting for the civil war in their country to end.
“The way you see us now, we are just lying here on this mat,” says Juma, who has just arrived in the camp. “Life is very difficult here.”
The refugees are not allowed to work in Kenya, they live on WFP rations and drink from borehole pumps. But like Juma, who fled inter-tribal fighting in southern Sudan just two months ago, they are still coming to Kakuma.
In the year since the January 2005 peace agreement was signed, more than 7,000 people have poured into the camp. Instead of the numbers going down as expected, Kakuma’s population has actually swelled to close to 92,000 – the highest ever.
Peace at risk
“Everybody says peace has been signed. But there is not really peace. If there is a raid from another tribe, there is no peace,” says Juma.
They came at night. They were looting cattle and goats. They took young kids and killed a lot of people
When militia attacked his village in the Upper Nile province Simon was sleeping.
“They came at night. They were looting cattle and goats. They took young kids and killed a lot of people,” he says.
He and one of his nephews escaped into the bush and struggled to a nearby town where a local non-governmental organisation put them on a plane to Kakuma. But he was separated from his sisters and brothers and has not heard from them since.