South Sudan – Returned Refugees Face a Bleak Future

The war in Sudan has forced thousands of South Sudanese, who had fled the conflict in their own country, to return home. They have settled in camps for the internally displaced that already lacked basic supplies.

Thousands of South Sudanese who had crossed into Sudan since 2012 when war broke out in their country have returned home. They are being settled into already congested camps, for more than 2 million internally displaced persons, that lack basic necessities like shelter, food, and water.

Many cannot return to villages razed by floods in the last four years or destroyed by fighting between different warring factions. Humanitarian organizations caring for the returnees say they are overwhelmed and have called on the international community for more funding. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also said they expect many more people to return to South Sudan in the near future.

Reluctant returnees

In Rubkona County, in Bentiu, Unity State, returnees, mostly women and children, told DW harrowing stories about their flight from Sudan’s conflict and the treacherous journey back home. Aid agencies flew back only a few lucky ones. Most returned by road or water in arduous days-long journeys.

Martha Nyakuma Mawech, 35, left South Sudan in 2013 after her village was attacked. She had to leave some of her family behind. She started a new life in Sudan and had planned to stay.

“I did not think I would return home because South Sudan is still in crisis,” Mawech told DW. “But I spoke constantly on the phone to my family, to find out how they were doing.”

Mawech’s return was fraught with difficulties. She traveled for many days, dodging bullets and death. She did not have enough food and water.

“I can’t find the words to describe the journey home. Many people were shot dead. Some starved to death. Many were trapped in shelters without food. It was hard,” she said.

Samuel Riek Taran, 21, left South Sudan in search of safety. He told DW that he and other refugees were mistreated in Sudan: “They often raped our women and took away those with lighter skin.”

When war broke out in Sudan, Taran met up with a few others to head home.

“We gathered in Khartoum and decided that we had to leave and get our families out. We bought a car, took our things, and went to the border with South Sudan. We sold the car at the border and took a boat,” Taran said. They sailed on the Nile river for six days before reaching South Sudan.

Shattered dreams

Kerbino Kwai Luol, 37, and his wife, 29-year-old Nyabim Gai, fled South Sudan in 2013, at the height of the war between government forces and Riek Machar’s fighters.

After gaining independence on July 9, 2011, South Sudan was embroiled in nearly a decade of conflict along tribal lines between the dominant Dinka tribe of President Salva Kiir and the Nuer of his former rival, now his first deputy, Riek Machar. The fighting between their forces killed around 400,000 people.

“When we arrived in Sudan, we found life was better,” Luol said. “Although we had nothing in the beginning. But as life went on, we managed to settle well, until we were displaced again by the war in Sudan. We had nothing when we left and came back with nothing,” Kerbino said.

In Sudan, menial jobs allowed Kerbino and his wife to save some money to start a small business that could sustain their family.

“I would buy clothes from Sudan and send them to South Sudan, and my contact person in South Sudan would sell the clothes and send the money back to me,” Kerbino told DW. He had some money for the journey back home.

“I had 1.5 million Sudanese pounds (Ꞓ2,280). I had planned to use this money to help my family during transit. But unfortunately we got robbed by armed men on the way and all the money was taken away.”

Aid organizations overwhelmed

Caroline Nakidde Sekyewa, country director for the International Rescue Committee )IRC= in South Sudan, told DW in Juba that “many refugees are returning to situations where social services, access to food, education, healthcare and hygiene are already constrained.” International organizations are experiencing difficulties in meeting all the needs.

Even before the arrival of the returnees, the flood-affected IDP camps in Rotriak were already facing difficulties, according to a June 2023 report by the OCHA.

Returnees settling in Rotriak have added to the number of people sleeping and living out in the open for lack of shelter, increasing the level of vulnerability of the community, OCHA said.

The IRCäs Sekyewa said that the lack of funds is contributing to the deterioration of the situation.

“The humanitarian response plan is less than 40% funded. The current humanitarian situation needs to be better funded. And then add the Sudan crisis, where we have quite a lot of displacement,” Sekyewa told DW.

More than 7.8 million people in South Sudan are projected to fall short of their minimum food needs in 2023. South Sudan may experience greater widespread hunger and starvation than during its civil war, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Starvation looms

Food insecurity will force more than three out of five South Sudanese to skip meals or sell possessions to buy food. Some 43,000 people face starvation, the IRC warned.