As Sudan prepares to split, many still stranded far from home

A Southern Sudanese woman eats fruit at a makeshift returnee camp along the White Nile in Juba.
A Southern Sudanese woman eats fruit at a makeshift returnee camp along the White Nile in Juba. Alan Boswell/MCT

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Deng Wol Diang, who hails from Sudan's African south, has been living in an open field on the outskirts of the capital of Sudan's Arab north since Nov. 5. He'd like to go home, but he can't.

"We've been stranded here," he said, his expression showing gaping holes in his top row of teeth. "Our situation is really very bad."

An estimated 8,000 others are waiting with Diang in the Wad al Bashir camp for the opportunity to go home. Across the sun-bleached field, sand flutters and swirls through mound after mound of what remains of their lives: bed frames, cookware, upside-down chairs, the meager fruits of years of manual labor, all piled in a soured anticipation of an elusive homecoming.

In July, after decades of war, Sudan will split into two countries. Diang and the other travelers-in-waiting here live in the Arab capital in the north, Khartoum. They now wish to return home to the African south.

Southern Sudan's vote for independence in a January referendum may have resolved Sudan's decades of civil war, which saw some 2 million people killed over 50 years of on-again, off-again fighting. But the messy divorce also left many caught in a frustrating limbo.

Four million Southern Sudanese — slightly less than half of the south's population — fled their homes during the conflict, many to the relative stability of the north. Only half have returned since the war ended in 2005.

Late last year, the southern government mobilized its displaced kin in the north to return. A human tidal wave followed. More than 260,000 flooded south across Sudan's desert and savannas by river, road and rail to home villages that lack the most basic services, all in just a few months.

Yet the task was never finished. More than 200,000 southerners who registered for transit back from Khartoum remain stuck here, according to the New Sudan Council of Chiefs, an official network of southern traditional leaders who are assisting the mass migration.

Many more remain scattered across the rest of the north, often as farmhands. It's likely that hundreds of thousands more who wish to return didn't even bother to register.

Tens of thousands, like Diang, moved out of their homes and are waiting in open-air camps. Promised transport back, they said goodbye to their old lives and gathered here to wait for the lift home. It never came.

They're living mainly off the wages of women, some of whom work as maids. Mary Adow Tong, 37, makes and sells handicrafts to help keep everyone here eating.

"We are just sitting here doing nothing. Where is the money the government promised for transport?" she asked.

Some of the men find day labor; others just watch over the possessions. "When they saw us coming here with all our belongings, the Arabs stopped hiring us," Diang complained.

For him and others here, it's yet another chapter in lives that seemingly are carried more by gale storms of fate than active agency, their families bounced around like objects in a cosmic game of pinball.

Living in Khartoum was a choice that few made willingly. It was a trek of pure and brutal survival, a flight through a haze of painful memories: burnt villages, Arab raiders on horseback, rape, famine, enslaved family members — crude counterinsurgency tactics the Sudanese government later would employ infamously in Darfur.

"They came and took everything I had. I was forced to come here, because I had nothing left," Diang said.

Life in the northern capital wasn't easy. Sudan's social hierarchy ranks people according to the color gradation of their skin, from light olive brown to pitch black. These Nilotic southerners, dark as ebony, fall at the bottom of that scale.

They are derisively called "abid," Sudanese Arabic for slave. Wages are poor, and the work difficult or demeaning. They live in sprawling slums on the outskirts of town.

Now, once again, they're under the push and pull of larger-than-life forces. Once flushed out of their homelands by the ravages of war, they're now being sucked back by the tide of peace.

For the southern leaders, these displaced countrymen formed a mathematical liability. In the referendum, southerners in the north were eligible voters. Southern leaders feared that the northern regime of President Omar al Bashir could fraudulently manipulate these votes.

Southern politicians also feared that the vulnerable pool could become a bargaining chip for the north. In the secession negotiations, southerners here could effectively be held as hostages, the terms of their treatment and future rights used to win concessions from the south on oil payments and border disputes.

So the southern government organized the great migration southward, but it allocated only $20 million for the return of hundreds of thousands. Diang and the others here responded to the call with patriotic fervor.

Twice, convoys arrived at Wad al Bashir to pick up the travelers. The first time, about 1,500 people got seats. The second time, 2,000.

Then the vehicles stopped.

Once the January referendum proceeded smoothly, the urgency of resettlement faded among the southern politicians.

The project's $20 million dried up long ago. The displaced have no money left to hire cars on their own, barely scraping together enough to eat. When a group of chiefs visited the site, they were greeted by an angry outburst that lasted several minutes.

As for the southern government, it's moved on to other concerns. Thirty million dollars has been set aside for independence celebrations July 9.

If Diang and the others finally manage to scrape up rides back south, that will hardly be the end of the journey. They'll arrive in a place untouched by modern development, without jobs or much use for the urbanized skill sets acquired in the north.

The elders insist that they're eager to go back to farming, the younger insist that they can learn an ancestral way of life. The United Nations has said it remains skeptical that the south can fully absorb the returnees, who risk tipping an already precarious humanitarian situation.

Meanwhile, the red sun sets and rises over jagged silhouettes piled on top of a desolate field in Khartoum, as lives, long ago interrupted, wait a bit longer.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)


How Sudan used the Internet to crush protest movement

Surge in Sudan violence raises worry independence won't bring peace

Angry Southern Sudanese destroy U.N. vehicles over peace talks

Wave of violence raises worries about Southern Sudan

As Sudan makes split official, popular anger sweeps north

Follow McClatchy on Twitter.

Related stories from McClatchy DC