"All we want is to go home”: Returnees and refugees fleeing the Sudan crisis speak

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Anita Kiki Gbeho, newly appointed UNMISS Deputy Special Representative-Humanitarian as well as South Sudan’s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, recently visited Malakal and Renk to meet those fleeing the Sudan crisis. Photo by Ines Surwumwe/UNMISS

16 Feb 2024

"All we want is to go home”: Returnees and refugees fleeing the Sudan crisis speak

Ines Surwumwe

UPPER NILE – As conflict continues unabated in Sudan, the influx of returnees and refugees continues into South Sudan.

Ensuring protection and much-needed humanitarian assistance for them has been one of the top priorities for the United Nations family, especially in Renk, a border town in Upper Nile state, where transit centers for temporary relief have been established.

However, challenges abound here, as Anita Kiki Gbeho, the newly appointed Deputy Special Representative-Humanitarian (DSRSG) for the UN Peacekeeping mission, UNMISS, and Resident & Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, discovered on her maiden trip to Upper Nile.

The transit camp—built to accommodate 2,000 people—now houses some 9,000 returnees and refugees, with attendant issues such as overcrowding and fears of disease outbreaks.

“Every day, we receive between 1,000-1,500 new arrivals,” said a humanitarian worker.

And all of them have harrowing tales to share.

“There was constant shooting,” recalls Zaigra, a refugee and mother of four children. “My family and I escaped from Khartoum and travelled through many places we weren’t familiar with before reaching the Joda border that lies between Sudan and South Sudan,” she adds.

“Along the way, we came across armed men who threatened to shoot us if we didn’t hand over our phones and valuables,” she continued. “We were left without any means of communication, and it is a miracle that we are even alive, speaking to you today,” she said to DSRSG Gbeho, who listened patiently, visibly moved by the suffering she was witnessing.

“I have been in South Sudan for a mere two weeks, but I immediately realized that I need to visit Malakal and Renk to see firsthand what the situation is,” revealed the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator.

“We need to find sustainable solutions for people seeking refuge in South Sudan. Our work has only begun here, and I am appealing to every stakeholder—including donors—who have supported us thus far, to continue their assistance,” added Ms. Gbeho.

For its part, UNMISS is helping the humanitarian response by ensuring a consistent protective presence through patrols in the area and fostering harmonious relationships between host communities and new arrivals, given that scarce resources are bound to cause friction.  

But the simplest and, perhaps, the most heartrending plea for peace comes from Mohammad Adam, another refugee. “I used to be a lecturer in Sudan. This war has cost us not only our homes and families but also our modes of income. All we want is to go home, and live in peace,” stated the father of three young children. “What future can I provide my kids if this situation continues?”

Whether in the turbulent journey to safety or in these temporary shelters, women and children are the most affected.

But they are also the most resilient, showing DSRSG Gbeho their handicrafts.

“It keeps us busy during the day,” says Mary Jonathan, who is sheltering at the Renk transit centre. “Whether we are returnees or refugees, we are like sisters now, sharing our trauma and trying to heal.”

For DSRSG Gbeho, it is these pockets of hope that one must hold on to. “I am amazed by the spirit, courage and camaraderie among the women and girls in the transit center. They fuel our determination as the UN family to do everything we can to improve their lives,” she concluded.

But despite joint efforts, needs continue to outpace resources in Renk and more must be done before these returnees and refugees can begin rebuilding their lives.