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Sudan: Helping the exiles return

In an article first published in the International Herald Tribune, WFP's Country Director in Sudan, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, calls on the international community to invest in southern Sudan's fledgling peace.

In an article first published in the International Herald Tribune, WFP's Country Director in Sudan, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, calls on the international community to invest in southern Sudan's fledgling peace.

RUMBEK, Sudan - It is a paradox that at a time when so many European countries are discussing increasingly severe measures to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the European Union, one of the simplest and most economical ways to address this problem is being neglected: promoting peace and prosperity in those immigrants' countries of origin.

A case in point is southern Sudan, where peace is at last taking hold (notwithstanding the continuing horror in Darfur, in western Sudan). After 21 years of civil war that killed 1.5 million people, and nearly two decades of a multibillion-dollar international humanitarian effort, a new aura of stability is persuading people to return home from exile in other countries, including in Europe, and even the United States and Australia.

More than 400,000 refugees trekked back home to the town of Rumbek and to other areas of southern Sudan last year. If the peace agreement signed in January between southern rebel groups and the Khartoum government endures, up to 1.2 million could make the return journey by the end of the year.

This remarkable development sends a clear message. Given the choice, people will almost always return to their homes. All they need is the slightest indication that they can rebuild their livelihoods in a secure environment.

But the creation of a secure environment in southern Sudan could be sabotaged by last-minute shortages of food and other aid. People started moving home, often on foot, long before the Jan. 9 peace agreement was signed and before the international community felt confident enough in the peace to provide the aid that the remaining residents and the returnees need to bring life back to their shattered communities.

The World Food Program, for instance, has appealed for $302 million to help feed 3.2 million people this year in southern and eastern Sudan. So far, however, it has received only 15 percent of what it needs. At the same time, there are signs of a new potential food crisis in Sudan resulting from a combination of a poor cereal harvest this year and last and huge increases in prices for staple foods like sorghum.

Communities in southern Sudan have mostly welcomed the returnees, but are hard-pressed to provide for them. Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of supplying them with food for the journey and enough food to tide them over to the next harvest.

There is a host of other tasks to be done to rebuild the south so it can support itself. For instance, road repairs and demining are needed to make it easier, safer and cheaper for people to return, to improve access to markets and services and to bring down the cost of transporting food aid. And as more people return home, there will be only more pressure on the very limited amount of food available. We need food aid immediately as well as support for projects aimed at improving agriculture and livestock production.

We also urgently need contributions to allow proper monitoring of the returns, to deliver food and other items before the rainy season and to build infrastructure in time to avoid the suffering that deeper food shortages and a mass return will bring.

With a donors' conference for Sudan scheduled for April 11 and 12 in Oslo, the time has certainly come for the necessary investment in this long-awaited peace. This is not just another plea for money for a chronic African problem. Sudan stands at a crossroads: One way leads to peace and development, while the other descends into increasing competition and growing tensions over scarce land and food. Both the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army have warned that this way could lead back to war.

The international community spent more than $2 billion in providing humanitarian aid to southern Sudan during the civil war. Since 1991, the World Food Program alone has delivered, through air drops, airlifts, overland and by barge, more than 500,000 tons of food.

How can we expend so much effort over so many years into securing peace, only to jeopardize it by stinting on aid when it actually arrives? Now it is time to ensure that the hopes of all those who just want to go home are not squandered on the last leg of the journey. If the international community fails in its promises to the people of southern Sudan, the exodus - to Sudan's neighbors and to Europe - will begin again.

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