Bentiu 2019: The times are changing
Amid the whirlwind, omni-entering dust, the internally displaced persons milling about at the Bentiu UN protection site and the police officers patrolling the area, there is a distinct and rather pleasant whiff in the hairdryer-hot air.
The discerning visitor, one of them being Seiji Okada, the Japanese ambassador to South Sudan, will swiftly identify that whiff as the unmistakable, peacefulness-propelled waft of hope.
“This [revitalized] peace agreement is different. I hope and believe that it will work out this time. It is a very good sign that the opposition governor has been here, and that everyone is talking amicably with each other and moving around freely. I’m optimistic,” says Nyayup Dak Kuol, smiling shyly.
Any doubts the 21-year-old mother of two may still harbour would be easily forgiven.
The violent volatility, the twists and turns and the unpredictability so common to the greater Unity area have had her family seek shelter and assistance at the Protection of Civilians site of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan ever since they were displaced, way back in 2014. That’s when they grabbed their most precious belongings from their Rubkhona home and made a mad dash for safety, a few kilometres away.
Now, however, Nyayup assures us that security is no longer a major concern for her.
“I’m not afraid of being robbed or attacked. There is no fear at all. People, men and women, go outside and come back all the time. Normally they return at eight in the evening because of the curfew, but otherwise it would have been safe out there even at night.”
As it happens, her positivity is shared and felt by most at this promising time in formerly notoriously eerie Bentiu. Frequent public rapprochement activities, most notably a couple of massive December peace rallies, have brought former foes together, creating a momentum of trust among the populace.
While the protection site still resembles a fairly well-organized midsized town, being the temporary home to some 113,000 displaced persons, positive movements are in fact taking place. According to the latest available data (covering November-December 2018) from the UN Migration organ, IOM, almost 25,000 people have been registered as returnees, going back to their homes in one of the nine counties making up the Unity region.
They have left the UN protection site, other impromptu host communities in the area, or even Sudan, to resume their lives at home.
Deputy Governor Laraka Machar Turoal mentions four recent “batches” arriving from the neighbouring country to the north, containing “300, 700, five buses and another five buses” of former refugees.
Just the other week, the peacekeeping mission also transported some 40 displaced people back to Leer from its protection site in Wau.
With more South Sudanese expected to follow suit and return home, the funding requirements are highly likely to increase significantly. Returnees will need adequate educational, health, agricultural and other livelihood support to prosper.
In response, the UN entities operating in the country have established a Trust Fund for Reconciliation, Stabilization and Resilience, gratefully accepting contributions.
Japan, one of the young nation’s most consistent and long-standing donors, is keen to get in on the financing act. Being invited by the peacekeeping mission to visit Bentiu, ambassador Okada got a stellar opportunity to assess the needs and priorities in one of the country’s most dynamic regions.
“The big question at this point is how we can support the returnees in their home areas,” Mr. Okada said, before providing a tentative answer: “In the short term, I think we are talking about water, food, housing, but I also think there is a need for schools, and that a youth and women’s centre would be good to have. These are some of the things that have been requested from me [by the community leaders in the Protection of Civilians site].”
Technical assistance to improve and expand the farming and agricultural sector is also likely to be on the cards, according to the ambassador.
“We need expertise in growing rice,” said deputy governor Turoal, ending a long list of priorities which also included delivering vocational training to idle youth otherwise easily caught misbehaving. He also described the local government’s relationship with the UN peacekeeping mission as “so good that it is beyond comprehension.”
“You are in luck! I could talk about rice for days, because I have a rice farm at home,” beamed Mr. Okada, possibly remembering a particularly good harvest from yesteryear.
With the feel-good factor just shy of nudging the sky, there is still, however, one question crying out for an answer: Why is it that Nyayupa and thousands of her peers are still, despite the positive developments, staying at the protection site?
“We are waiting for the peace agreement to be fully implemented and for a new government to be formed. We will not leave alone, we will go home as a group, and it is better to wait till we feel sure [that peace will last] than to move out and then maybe have to come back. It could be too late by then,” she ponders.
Fortunately, the UNMISS Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Moustapha Soumaré is at hand to deliver a nice touch and healthy dose of empowerment:
“The indications are that there is a will to do it [implement the peace agreement], but now they need to go further and transform that will into a genuine and sustainable peace. Peace is almost there, now it is up to the South Sudanese to make it happen.”