Displaced people in Wau say they want to return home, but await guarantee of essential services
As the sun sets over Wau, the second largest town in South Sudan, a group of people – estimated to be around one thousand – are hurdled together on open ground.
Newly displaced by recent clashes between cattle herders and farmers in the Wau area’s Kuajena county, they have sought refuge inside the United Nations protection site near the UN mission base in the area, but have no shelter yet, as humanitarian partners work overtime to provide shelter.
Yet, around them, are residents of the protection site – now almost three years old in the camp – ready to return home. They are not leaving yet, although some have left. A conversation with David Shearer, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), reveals why.
“Most of us in here are people who were living in various areas or counties where, during and after the crisis, the roofs to most of their houses were destroyed,” says Peter Rezik, the chair of the camp management to the head of UNMISS, who was visiting the camp during his recent visit to the country’s Northern Bahr El Ghazal region.
“And even the places where there were boreholes,” he goes on: “Those have been destroyed. So, this is one of the challenges outside – there is no proper water in the areas where these people were living, there’s no proper education there, and even security in some of the areas, is not good enough for them to be there,” he says.
The conversation reveals that the displaced people who haven’t left yet are mainly those from more rural areas, away from the common services around Wau town. Those who had fled Wau town, have been voluntarily leaving over time, and the number of people in the UN protection site has dropped from 39,000 to 13,000. Mr. Shearer asks about these voluntary returns, and what may have influenced them.
“People are leaving, more especially in these recent months, after the signing of the revitalized peace agreement, because they feel there will be peace in place, and the security outside has stabilized a bit. That’s why they started to go out,” responds Mr. Rezik, the camp chair.
So, it seems that the displaced people are ready to voluntarily go back home, but they are waiting for some basic services to be put in place before they leave the camp, where most of those services have been consistently provided by humanitarian partners, with UNMISS offering protection. One woman outlines what is likely to prompt most people to return home:
“Right now, if our places are cleared by NGOs or government and police posts are installed in the area and water is provided for us, since it’s the biggest problem here in Wau,” says Eliza Augustino, a community leader in the camp, when asked what conditions would prompt them to voluntarily want to leave the camp and return home.
“And also, we wish there will be good hospitals in our different areas when we go back,” she says, speaking on behalf of the displaced people,” she says.
Mr. Shearer noted that the population of displaced people in the Wau UN protection site had “reduced significantly” from what it used to be. “What we would like to see, obviously, is even more people moving back,” he said.
The head of the UN Mission also outlined what the UN and humanitarian partners were planning to do, to create a conducive environment for safe, dignified voluntary returns.
“What we’re looking to do is a number of things: put services in those areas where people want to go back to, so that they don’t miss out on health or education, or even food – distributing food in the short term in those areas,” he said.
Mr. Shearer also noted that it was important to put in place conditions that would make people feel safe to return home.
“Having our patrols go out in those areas so there’s a degree of confidence about people moving back and knowing they’ll be safe – if we can do that, then I’m predicting that the POC will reduce even more significantly over the next few months,” noted Mr. Shearer.
At least 40% of displaced people in the area are ready to return home, according to an assessment conducted by humanitarian actors. According to Mr. Shearer, there is an even motivation to create a conducive environment for those people to voluntarily return home.
“There is a window of opportunity that we have over the next two or three months. The rains will come in and around June, and people need to be planting by then. If they don’t plant by then, they miss the season. So, we want to get people back to their homes so that they start planting by June. If they start planting by June, they’ll harvest three or four months later, and that will mean that they’re self-sufficient.”
Already, one small UN protection site has been closed at its Wau base, after all its inhabitants returned home, with a few remaining students relocated to another site.