SOUTHERN SUDAN REFERENDUM: Ray of hope for Sudanese refugees

Sudanese refugees dance during a celebration in Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement Camp yesterday. PHOTO BY BENON OLUKA

In Part III of our Road Trip to Juba series, which is part of our extended coverage of the forthcoming referendum vote in Southern Sudan on January 9, Benon Herbert Oluka meets refugees from Southern Sudan who stay at Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement Camp in Masindi District.

The refugees speak out on their hopes and fears for Southern Sudan after the plebiscite and plans to return home in a discussion that provides an insight into the likely impact that a break out of war could have on Uganda: -

While Vice President of Sudan Ali Osman Taha, and the then Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) leader, Col. Dr. John Garang de Mabior, were signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) at Nyayo Stadium, Nairobi, Kenya on January 9, 2005, a young secondary school student at Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement Camp in Masindi District, Uganda, was making a resolution.

That student, Francis August Ochen, who is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Makerere University, has held onto his resolution for five years now – and is currently just days away from achieving the first of the two most important aspects of his resolution. And by the end of the current academic year, he will have achieved the second just as the way he hoped he would.

“After the CPA was signed, my plan was to struggle to make sure that by the time of the referendum, I shall have finished a course in any field,” Mr Ochen revealed to Daily Monitor from the settlement camp. “With God’s will, I managed to get a scholarship and I believe this year, after the referendum, I will have finished my studies and I will go back home.”

Like many Southern Sudanese, Mr Ochen is undaunted by the fact that they have to first secure the 51 per cent or more votes required for their currently semi-autonomous state to be declared independent from the administrative clasp of the Khartoum government led by President Omar al-Bashir.

“Since the CPA was signed in 2005, we have been preparing and waiting for January 9 to be self-determining and to be out of oppression from the Khartoum government. This is our moment. Our task is just to go and cast our votes on that day and wait for the results. If the results are successful and everything is okay, I don’t think we shall remain here. If they declare the independence of the South, we shall go back home freely,” the 30-year-old Ochen said enthusiastically.

Yet, if he gets his wish and returns to Southern Sudan, Mr Ochen will be going into waters that he has rarely chartered over the last 20 years. He revealed that he arrived at the Kiryandongo refugee camp with his mother in 1989, aged just nine. Since then, Mr Ochen has lived all his life and received all his education in Uganda to a point where, by his own admission, he sometimes feels Ugandan. But his love for Southern Sudan often overshadows that feeling because, as he put it, “home is home.”

The Chairman of Southern Sudan Refugees in Kiryandongo, Mr John Flaviano Ojara, says Mr Ochen captures the overriding sentiment among refugees, including those who have never been to Southern Sudan. “As refugees, we are just like somebody who ran when there was rain and entered in somebody else’s house. Now that the rain has gone away, we are supposed to go back to our home,” he said.

For the different refugees who yearn to return home, the camp has offered mixed fortunes. While Mr Ochen is close to returning to his home country with a degree, none of Mr Ojara’s seven children will.
He explained that having come to the camp in 1990 after abandoning his job at a cooperative society in Southern Sudan due to escalating violence, he has largely depended on hand outs from Uganda and aid groups for the last 20 years.

Because the law does not allow refugees to seek formal employment, he could only supplement the hand outs from harvests on the one-and-a-half acre piece of land given to him when he first came to the camp. “I have depended only on the land because there is no other work. The rule in Uganda cannot allow refugees to get any other work; may be apart from doing petty jobs in other people’s gardens.

Otherwise, we depend on the land we were given. When I came, I was given an acre and a half. It is now exhausted because I have to depend on that land every year. They have not added us any land. You cannot get any other land and yet the number of family members keeps on increasing,” explained Mr Ojara, who is now a father of seven.

“Because of the conditions here,” he added, “there is hardship. Some of my children dropped out of school because I was unable not pay fees for them. Others passed Primary Seven and they are supposed to join secondary school but due to lack of school fees and due to hardship of life here in the refugee camp, they have dropped out. There is only one continuing in secondary school because we managed to pay for that one.”

Kiryandongo is currently home to more than 3,000 refugees from Southern Sudan, according to Mr Godfrey Mayengo, the deputy commandant of the refugee settlement camp. Other camps are in West Nile.

Due to the return of several refugees to Southern Sudan, the numbers have fallen greatly. However, by July 1996, Uganda was hosting 244,780 refugees from Southern Sudan alone, a number that had fallen to 170,000 before the signing of the CPA in 2005.

Between May 2006 and May 2007, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assisted 13,000 Sudanese refugees in returning home from Uganda. Then, on May 16, 2007, UNHCR reached another tripartite agreement with Sudan and Uganda to initiate efforts to repatriate an additional 120,000 refugees to the Eastern Equatoria state in Southern Sudan.

During the same meeting of the tripartite commission, writes Lucy Hovil, a senior researcher with the International Refugee Rights Initiative in a report dated November 2010, UNHCR and representatives of the Sudanese and Ugandan governments pledged to push the repatriation programme forward at a faster pace.

As a result of that initiative, by March 2010, only 20,301 registered Sudanese refugees were remaining in the Uganda’s camps. The number was at 19,268 by November 2010. However, humanitarian organisations and other analysts now fear that Uganda could end up having to make further sacrifices if the tensions in Sudan ahead of the referendum reignite conflict between the north and the south.

Contingency plans drawn up by the UNHCR suggest up to 100,000 Southern Sudanese could be displaced to Uganda if war breaks out after the referendum. According to the projections made by the UN, which were published on December 20 by its news agency, IRIN, another 100,000 Southern Sudanese could be displaced to Kenya, 80,000 to Ethiopia and 50,000 to Egypt in 2011. “We hope that nothing will happen ... but indeed it’s felt that some forms of displacement may happen from Southern Sudan into the neighbouring countries of asylum,” said Mr Mohamed Dayri, the regional UNHCR representative, in an interview with IRIN.

Plans
The Senior Protection Officer at the Commission for Refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, Douglas Asiimwe, says the government has already laid out plans to cater for any refugees who could cross over in case violence breaks out. “We have a contingency plan,” he said. “We have developed that plan with UNHCR, capturing all the different scenarios that could happen.”

An outbreak of conflict in Southern Sudan would not only scuttle the dreams of people like Mr Ochen, it would also heap fresh burden on a Uganda government that is mandated to take care of any refugees crossing into the country for as long as they stay. In Part IV, look at what Uganda stands to gain from a peaceful Southern Sudan – united with the north or otherwise.

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