UNMISS prepares for expected homecomings by learning from Khartoum returnees

unmiss south sudan rumbek khartoum returnees internally displaced persons refugees reintegration

When Rebecca Dokoro Bilal returned from Khartoum to her native South Sudan she became a farmer.

26 Jul 2019

UNMISS prepares for expected homecomings by learning from Khartoum returnees

Tonny Muwangala

How can a poor, war-torn, post-conflict country prepare itself to reintegrate thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons expected to return to their homes? Maybe by learning from its own recent history.

That was the rationale as the Rumbek Field Office of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan decided to gather 44 South Sudanese persons who came back home from Sudan’s capital Khartoum in 2011, following the independence of their native land. How have these “Khartoum returnees”, as they are known, been coping, what specific challenges have they faced back in the south and what exactly can local authorities, the peacekeeping mission and humanitarian partners learn from their experiences?

“We hope that what we can learn from this workshop will help the planning for the reintegration of refugees and internally displaced persons who are currently in Protection of Civilian sites across South Sudan. We know the people will be resettling in urban centers and therefore these lessons can prove to be valuable,” says Edward Angu Moini, who works for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.

Rebecca Dokoro Bilal becomes lost in deep thoughts when asked about her experience of coming back to her mother land after a long spell in Khartoum.

“It has been quite a journey,” she says, sighing, after having gathered herself together.

We followed Rebecca, a widow and mother of eight, to her place in Nyotic-Angui, a village on the outskirts of Rumbek. Ever since the rains started, Rebecca has been busy at her one-and-a-half-acre farm, growing groundnuts and sorghum.

“This is where I have been getting money to sustain my family, to pay school fees for my children and to buy them other things they need in life. I work here from morning to midday, especially on weekends.”

When she started to live and cultivate here in 2011, life posed lots of challenges for her and her children.

“This is a community with a lot of grazing animals, so many times my neighbour’s goats and cattle would destroy and eat my crops. This got me into a conflict with them. I needed to survive on my farm produce, but you also know the value of a cow in this place,” Rebeccca ponders.

The other immediate challenge they faced as a family was the language barrier. Rebecca says her children were affected both at home and at school.

“My children were born in Khartoum. The only language they knew was Arabic, and here people speak Dinka and English at school. My children struggled a lot to learn these two languages.”

To further supplement her income, Rebecca works as a cleaner at a small saloon in Rumbek. Although she says it brings in little, she believes it’s worth keeping.

“That evening job earns me something small to buy things like sugar and salt to use at home, but I mainly survive through my farm,” concluded Rebecca as she bid us farewell, returning to Rumbek.

Santino Andrea moved to Khartoum in 1981, where he worked as a gardener. When he returned to South Sudan, he opted to start growing and selling fruits for a living.

“I have mango, guava and orange trees. They can withstand the weather here, and I earn quite enough when I sell my fruits,” said Santino.  

Like his fellow returnees, Santino also encountered difficulties.

“In 2011, the crime rate was so high here compared to the peaceful environment we enjoyed in Khartoum. There were so many guns, people were shooting all the time, intercommunal violence and revenge attacks were the order of the day. Also, while the government gave me land, they didn’t give us capital and I had a farm to start,” he says.

Following the signing of last year’s revitalized peace agreement and the resulting, drastic decrease of violence in the country, South Sudanese authorities believe that many of their compatriots, currently refugees in neighbouring countries or internally displaced, will want to return to their homes. Such mass migration will likely pose daunting tasks in terms of logistics, reintegration and delivery of essential social services, such as education and healthcare.

“Access to social services is still problematic in the whole of South Sudan, and for the returnees it is not any different. This is an important part for us to focus on as we make this comprehensive reintegration plan and invite other humanitarian agencies to further support these returnees,” said Edward Angu Moini.

“We have also learned that they still have challenges like access to land because some are still seen as foreigners. This is something that we thought we had resolved but it was brought up again today. Insecurity in their places of resettlement is another factor to keep in mind. This is where they have asked the government to come in with protection,” he added.

Despite their challenges, the returnees believe that coming back home is one of the best choices they ever made, and that life can only get better.

“Nothing is better than being home, in your own country,” says Mr. Santino, beaming with pride.