Short distance, long way: Eastern Equatorians hesitate to return from Ugandan camps
Abandoned shops line the streets of once bustling towns across Ayaci and Magwi County near Torit in the eastern part of South Sudan. Places like Obbo, Pajok, and Pugee appear deserted, save a few women trading what little crops they have cultivated, or small groups of elderly men taking their tea.
“The situation we are having here is because of hunger. People have run away to the [refugee] camps [in Uganda]. Few have come back, so we are facing difficulties for food and crops to be planted,” explains David Omwony, a citizen of Obbo Payam.
Local residents fled these areas by the tens of thousands, particularly Pajok and Pugee, following violent clashes between government and opposition forces in April 2017. Civilians who reached safety in Uganda gave harrowing accounts of brutality against them.
Now communities and authorities alike are reporting improved relations with remaining government forces on the ground, increased security, and freedom of movement. The Ugandan border is a mere 20 kilometres away. Yet less than ten per cent of those who sought safety abroad have returned home. Statistics from the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission show that approximately 3,000 of an estimated population of 35,000 have returned to Pajok.
The traumatizing events of last year still linger in the memories of those remaining across the border, recently returned Ola Josef Okuna tells the members of the patrol from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, as they visit the area to assess the humanitarian and security situation.
“Our people in the camp, they fear. They cannot come back, unless the government or a team goes from here [Pajok] up to the camp. Then the people will agree that it is ok to return home,” says Mr. Okuna, who is also the Education Supervisor in Pajok.
Returnees also cite lack of shelter, little economy opportunities, hunger and mistrust as other obstacles hindering their fellow villagers from resettling in what used to be their homes.
“I lost my children and my husband. Life was difficult in the camp, so I came back in January. I have no proper accommodation, my house was burnt down. We are all depending on the little food distributed by humanitarian organizations,” laments Cesarina Akongo, a woman from Pajok.
The return of community members is essential to cultivating crops, stimulating the local economy, and rebuilding the area.