‘In the village you have relatives around, and they help you’: New dawn as displaced families embark on voluntary return journeys
The bright Juba sunrise rays blast through the sprawling rickety structures that form the UN protection site, adjacent to the Organization’s base in the South Sudanese capital.
For Nyamuon, Nyachoat and Nyaliep, it is the last sunrise in the big city, announcing the end of their life in the UN Protection of Civilians site, and a new beginning.
“The life here is different from the life in the village because here, nobody helps you, but in the village you have relatives around you and they help you,” says Nyachoat, the eldest of the trio, flanked by her four children, who only vaguely understand what is about to happen.
The three sisters are readying themselves to go home to their parents, and they have decided they would like to travel sooner rather than later. And so, they are quickly gathering together what they can and will shortly set off on a long road journey.
Most of what they own, is scattered in a big mess in their 5 by 4-meter space.
As they pack pots and pans; fold clothes and bedsheets into suitcases; and pile up jerrycans, three older children are getting themselves ready. The youngest is still asleep amid the melee, as each one picks out what they absolutely need.
Having packed what can fit in the bags they are taking with them, they step out of their shelter, one by one, with their heavy bags and suitcases.
The sisters have done this before. Severally.
A handful of curious neighbours, are watching. “Have a safe journey,” says one, as he shakes the hand of one of the sisters and walks away.
Soon the sisters make their way to await a vehicle which will drive them home to their waiting parents.
“The road is good, though it is long, we are happy because we will use a car and not go on foot,” says Nyachoat.
Unlike tens of thousands of others who have been living in this protection site for over five years now, this has only been their home for the past year.
In April 2013, just before a brutal conflict erupted in South Sudan, the sisters had already started making their way from Renk, located in the northern part of South Sudan, to Kenya where they ended up as refugees.
In search of an education and a better life, their journey took them to Kakuma refugee camp, in northern Kenya, where they lived for five years.
“In Kenya we were in Kakuma. We were in school, but we dropped out because our eldest sister’s husband who used to support us can no longer support us, because he is in detention,” says the youngest sister, 18-year-old Nyamuon. “We are happy to go back home and be reunited with our parents and continue with our education,” she adds. “If we fail, we can find ways of coming back.”
They returned to South Sudan a year ago in, April, and have lived in the UN protection camp since. And now, they are among a dozen people who have volunteered to return to their homes in Jonglei.
“They came to our protection desk seeking assistance to voluntarily return to their original homes. Some of them feel like leaving the POC [Protection of Civilians site]. They are going to Uror in Jonglei region,” says Samuel Malwony, a community worker for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. “It was them to decide,” he adds.
This is the first time a displaced family is leaving a Juba protection site this year in organized voluntary-return efforts being coordinated by UNHCR.
“UNHCR is supporting them. They have given them some kits for them to start their living in the village,” says Malwony, “They are going by road so two vehicles – one for their luggage and one for themselves. These two vehicles will take them up to Bor. From there, there are also some other families in Bor POC, so they will go as a convoy,” explains Malwony, who says that they will spend a night in Bor and travel onward on a convoy for another day and a half. “The journey will take about three days,” he says.
“Seeing that there is peace in South Sudan, they wanted to go and try to enjoy free movement, and try to start their homes, and start farming. I am also an IDP (Internally Displaced Person), and I feel what they have started, I feel even my family can also leave…” he says, relating to their plight to his own.
Part of the preparation process includes recording their finger-prints, as these biometrics will help track their movement, and also ensure that they can receive food rations as a way of getting started, in case of distributions in their home area.
Joining the sisters is 46-year-old Deng Reath, who also returned from Kakuma, and is looking forward to joining his wife and three children, whom he has not seen in about five years.
“I am just feeling happy to be going home, because I will get my family there in Lanken. In addition to that, we can go to cultivate in our homeland. When there is peace, then we can cultivate. I am an agriculturalist. I used to plant vegetables and fruits whenever the rains came,” says Reath who, before the conflict erupted, worked as an Assistant Director of Agriculture in his region.
“I will miss him,” says Manyar Guk, Reath’s nephew who is at hand to escort and help his uncle with one of his bags. “They are going home, so it is ok. There, they will enjoy,” says Guk.
This development is triggering nostalgic feelings around the camp.
“I also want to go to my place in the village, in Bor,” says Bol, a bystander. “I have been here for five years now, and my parents are old. I want to go to them,” he says.
As part of its current mandate, UNMISS is working in coordination with partners to support the facilitation of the safe, informed, voluntary and dignified return or relocation of internally displaced persons from Protection of Civilians sites.
“The mandate of the Mission has been changed to emphasis that the Mission should also support returns of IDPS to their homes of origin,” says James Tsok Bot, head of the Relief, Reintegration and Protection Section at UNMISS.
“We therefore are working with the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of the Government, together with Humanitarian actors, to prepare an action plan under which all support will be provided and coordinated. There has also been a timely intervention by the humanitarian community and CERF [Central Emergency Response Fund] funds have been provided that will enhance conditions of returns in certain areas,” says Bot.
The one-dozen displaced people are soon out of the UN protection site, and as their two-car convoy takes off to join another of about 100 displaced people, their journey home will see them reunited with their families after years of separation.
It is a process whose momentum has been building gradually since the signing of a peace deal in September 2018, with the number of displaced people who had sought refuge at UN protection sites across the country dropping by tens of thousands already, to just over 180,000.