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First UN-organized repatriation of southern Sudan’s refugees gets under way

First UN-organized repatriation of southern Sudan’s refugees gets under way

Refugee children at Kakuma camp in  Kenya
A white bull was slaughtered, children sang and danced, women ululated and men pounded drums in celebration as a group of South Sudanese refugees went home over the weekend in the first repatriation organized by the United Nations refugee agency for those who fled the 21-year-long civil war in southern Sudan.

“You could say it's a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of thousands of refugees in neighbouring countries, not forgetting the millions of internally displaced persons in Khartoum and the South who would like to come home,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) director of Sudan operations Jean-Marie Fakhouri said, referring to the small number – just 131 - on this first repatriation.

“But a drop in the ocean can be the start of a tsunami. Today the message will go out to everyone that maybe we should start thinking about going home now,” he added.

In all some 550,000 people fled south Sudan where a peace accord between the Government and rebels last January ended the civil war, while a further 4 million were displaced internally.

“This is a joyous day, the day we welcome refugees home from exile,” a representative of the new government of South Sudan, set up under the agreement, said at a ceremony on Saturday in Nadapal, just inside South Sudan on the Kenyan border, where local residents waved paper flags of what they call New Sudan to welcome their kinfolk home.

He was speaking to 64 refugees who came by bus from Kakuma Refugee Camp in north-western Kenya, headed for villages near Kapoeta and Chukudum in Eastern Equatoria state. UNHCR flew another 67 refugees to Bor, in Jongley state, on two aircraft on Saturday. It was a long, tiring journey for all 131 refugees, most of whom were still on the move towards their final destinations as of this morning.

The agency, along with other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations, has been working since the signing of the accord in January, to prepare communities in the south to receive the returnees from neighbouring countries as well as the internally displaced persons (IDPs) displaced within Sudan.

UNHCR has built or rebuilt schools, hospitals, vocational training centres and water points to help entire communities, not just the returnees.

“Now we feel ready to offer refugees who want to return the full range of services,” Mr. Fakhouri said. He pledged that UNHCR will expand the areas to which it is assisting returns. Next month, it plans to start bringing refugees home from the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mr. Fakhouri said some 18,000 Sudanese in Ethiopia had asked UNHCR to take them home, which it plans to do early in 2006.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) gave the weekend’s returnees two weeks' supply of food, and is distributing another three-month supply inside South Sudan. Returnees will then be offered the chance to work on community projects to get another three-month supply of food from WFP.

“This first group is a hope for the future for all Sudanese refugees and displaced,” WFP Country Director Tesema Negash said.

But he added: “The problems caused by 21 years of civil war are not going to disappear overnight. Bringing all the Sudanese home will take a long time and needs the international community’s support to happen. The end is at last in sight, but we will all need to work to get there.”

He noted that so far WFP’s operation for 220,000 refugees in Kenya had received no funds to allow it to continue beyond March 2006 and contributions in kind and cash are urgently needed. Despite the growing needs, the agency has a shortfall of $94 million, or over 30 per cent, for its 2005 emergency operation in the south, east and transitional areas of Sudan.