LONDON (AlertNet) - It's probably not the homecoming most south Sudanese were expecting.
For many of the thousands who had streamed to South Sudan ahead of the historic vote on independence in January, euphoria about being home has quickly dissolved into disappointment.
Little did they anticipate the lack of land to harvest crops or build their homes, the scarcity of jobs, being forced to rely on food handouts, poor schooling and even the inability to communicate with others, that was waiting for them back home.
"I've had numerous discussions in transit sites with IDPs (internally displaced people). What was very obvious was yes, people did want to come back. They said, 'we were hoping and waiting for the moment to come back'," said Nina Sluga, a Sudan analyst for the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
"They were really genuinely happy to come back to a place where they are not treated as second class citizens, where they are among their own people. But the problem is there's nothing here for them," she told AlertNet.
The government of South Sudan has encouraged its lost sons and daughters to come home ever since a peace deal was signed in 2005 to end two decades of civil war that sent four million people fleeing – many to the northern capital, Khartoum, others to neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt.
The momentum to return intensified in the run-up to the referendum, in which southerners voted overwhelmingly for secession, and is expected to continue until at least July 9 when South Sudan is due to become an independent state.
The southern government initially predicted the rapid return of 1.5 million people. But the rate of return has been much slower than even their revised figures, with 300,000 southerners returning since October, the IDMC said in a briefing paper on Southern Sudan published this week.
"It was unrealistic. There was no way the government could facilitate such a huge number of people before the referendum," Sluga said by phone from the southern Sudanese town of Yei, citing a lack of funds and logistical capability.
"The government here aren't even coping with what's on their plate already," she said.
The report described how some of those who had returned without outside help had ended up sheltering under trees, their belongings exposed to the sun, wind and rains. Others complained that it took up to a month to get registered and receive assistance. Many were stuck in transit sites because there was no transport to take them to the villages of their birth.
"There's a certain level of disappointment especially after the campaign, and widely publicised invitation of the government, to come back," Sluga said.
IMPOSSIBLE LIVING CONDITIONS?
Major obstacles to reintegration include land issues, access to food, water and education, and freedom of movement, IDMC said.
The allocation of plots of land for returnees has been plagued with delays, misinformation and a lack of availability – these factors combined could fuel future tensions between returnees and the existing community. For example, some local authorities have demarcated large areas of community land for returnees without consulting chiefs or paying any compensation.
Another worry is whether returnees will receive the food they need, especially during the traditional May-July lean season. IDMC said 18 percent of all returnees are severely food insecure compared with 6 percent of residents.
The World Food Programme has been feeding more than 70,000 returnees since December, giving them a three-month supply of food based on the assumption that they will be able to feed themselves after that. But as IDMC points out, returnees do not necessarily know how to farm, nor are many interested in it after years spent in cities.
Education levels in South Sudan, where cycles of conflict have thwarted any attempts at development, are some the poorest in the world. Less than a quarter of the 2.2 million children of primary school age are enrolled in class. IDMC said in addition south Sudanese schools had struggled to integrate students returning from Arabic-language schools in the north.
No wonder there are growing reports of returnees wishing to go back to the north, unable to cope with the culture clash and living conditions of the south. But some of those trying to return north from Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, which borders northern Sudan, have faced arrest and jail, IDMC said.
With independence fast approaching, some humanitarian aid workers are concerned that both north and south will try to force out southerners who remain in the north and northerners living in the south.
"The question of citizenship has not been resolved so far. It should be resolved before July 9. This is a basic human right. People should not lose their right to citizenship," Sluga said. "Right now, Sudan is still one country. People should not be stopped (from moving) or forced to move anywhere," she added.
The scale of the problems facing the south's politicians, most of whom were bush fighters during the war, reflects the ruling class' lack of resources, experience and expertise in governing. Yet southerners' expectations of their leaders will only grow after July 9.
"It is the responsibility of the government, not of the NGOs, not of the international community, to provide for its citizens," Sluga said. "But its low capacity should be acknowledged. It's not a country recovering from something, it's a country starting from scratch."