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UN wrestles with twin challenges in Sudan's west and south

UN wrestles with twin challenges in Sudan's west and south

Displaced women in Darfur
The United Nations was today struggling with the twin challenges of feeding nearly 3 million people displaced or otherwise affected by the ongoing conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region while preparing to cope with the enormous needs of up to 500,000 refugees returning to the newly pacified south of Africa's largest country.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said a lack of funds was limiting its ability to provide a complete food basket to displaced families in Darfur and to pre-position food stocks ahead of the rainy season in July and August in a region where tens of thousands of people have been killed and up to 1.85 million others displaced in the past two years.

The agency has so far received only $240 million of the more than $440 million it has sought to feed 2.8 million people affected by the conflict, which began when rebels took up arms two years ago, partly in protest at the distribution of economic resources, but has since been compounded by attacks by Janjaweed and other militias against villages and civilians.

Meanwhile, in the south, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Wendy Chamberlin assessed the enormous needs that must be met if half a million refugees in that region are to return home and begin rebuilding their lives following last month's accord that ended two decades of war between the Government and rebels.

Today she was heading from the town of Yei in southern Sudan across the border to Uganda, which hosts some 223,000 Sudanese refugees. She had earlier visited the town of Rumbek where she saw first-hand some of the enormous rehabilitation needs facing this strife-torn region, including a lack of infrastructure, from roads to schools, clinics and buildings for the local civil authorities.

Another urgent need is landmine clearance. Roads that refugees will use to return must be cleared, and the roads themselves are in poor condition. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is working with Germany's GTZ, which next week will start repair work on roads leading to southern Sudan from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Conditions such as these are among the major challenges to the return of some 500,000 refugees. UNHCR has plans in place for projects to improve conditions on the ground but urgently needs more than $62 million this year to begin small-scale rehabilitation projects to lay the groundwork for refugee return. So far, UNHCR has not received any contributions for its 2005 programme.

Ms. Chamberlin stressed that UNHCR and the international community have a window of opportunity now to put infrastructure in place so that people can begin returning home – and stay home – after the rainy season ends in September. "We are in a race against time to get adequate conditions in place within the next few months," she said.