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Thousands of exhausted South Sudanese head home, fleeing brutal conflict

Some 50,000 people have crossed into the border town of Renk
South Sudanese Ehlam Saad, 42, sits at a transit site in Renk, South Sudan Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese are flocking home from neighboring Sudan, which erupted in violence last month. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

Tens of thousands of exhausted people are heading home to the world’s youngest country as they flee a brutal conflict in neighboring Sudan.

There’s a bottleneck of men, women and children camping near the dusty border of Sudan and South Sudan and the international community and the government are worried about a prolonged conflict.

Fighting between Sudan’s military and a rival militia killed at least 863 civilians in Sudan before a seven-day ceasefire began Monday night. Many in South Sudan are concerned about what could happen if the fighting next door continues.

“After escaping danger there’s more violence,” said South Sudanese Alwel Ngok, sitting on the ground outside a church. “There’s no food, no shelter, we’re totally stranded, and I’m very tired and need to leave,” she said.

Ngok thought she’d be safe returning home after fleeing clashes in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, where she watched three of her relatives killed. She and her five children arrived in Renk, South Sudan, where people were sheltering on the ground, some sleeping with their luggage piled up near thin mats. Women prepared food in large cooking pots as teenagers roamed aimlessly. Days after Ngok and her family arrived, she said, a man was beaten to death with sticks in a fight that began with a dispute over water.

Years of fighting between government and opposition forces in South Sudan killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions until a peace agreement was signed nearly five years ago. Enacting a solid peace has been sluggish: The country has yet to deploy a unified military and create a permanent constitution.

Large-scale clashes between the main parties have subsided, but there is still fighting in parts of the country.

South Sudan has billions in oil reserves that it moves to international markets through a pipeline that runs through Sudan in territories controlled by the warring parties. If that pipeline is damaged, South Sudan’s economy could collapse within months, said Ferenc David Marko, a researcher at the International Crisis Group.

However, the most immediate concern is the tens of thousands of South Sudanese who are returning with no idea of how they’ll get home to their towns and villages. Many are unable to afford the trip. Aid groups and the government are stretched for resources they can use to help.

Some 50,000 people have crossed into the border town of Renk, many sheltering in stick huts along the road and in government buildings throughout the city. Some wander aimlessly in the market, desperately asking foreigners how to get home. People are arriving faster than they can be taken to new locations.

The longer they stay, the greater the risk of fighting between communities, many with longstanding grievances stemming from the civil war. Many are frustrated because they don’t know what lies ahead.

The power struggle in South Sudan between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, took on an ethnic dimension during the civil war. Communities in Renk said that the conflict that broke out over water in May and led to the killing of the man with sticks quickly became a wider dispute between the ethnic groups, forcing people to flee once again.

At first, the local government wanted to divide the South Sudanese returning through Renk, based on their place of origin. Aid groups, however, pushed back. Together with the government and community leaders, the aid groups are engaging in peace dialogues.

“We are worried (about more violence),” said Yohannes William, the chairman for the humanitarian arm of the government in Upper Nile state. “The services that (are) being provided here, they are limited. We have been told that this is a transit center, anyone who comes should be there two days or three days and then transit.”

“But now, unfortunately, due to the delayment of transportation, they have been there for more than two weeks, three weeks,” William said.

Situated at the northernmost tip of South Sudan, Renk is connected to other parts of the country by few roads. The main routes are flights or boat trips along the Nile, and many people can’t afford them.

The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration is trying to send the most vulnerable South Sudanese who have returned — some 8,000 people — home by boat, with the goal of transporting nearly 1,000 people daily along the Nile to the state capital of Malakal. However, the trips have just begun, and problems in coordination between aid groups and the government at the port this month delayed people from leaving, with children, babies and the sick camped by empty boats for days under the scorching sun.

Aid workers say it could take up to two months to decongest the city, which has nearly doubled in size. But Malakal already hosts some 44,000 displaced people in a United Nations protection camp, many still too afraid to leave for security reasons.

“The problem is ‘an out of the frying pan, into the fire’ conundrum, because we’re moving them to Malakal, and Malakal is itself congested,” Nicholas Haysom, the United Nations chief in South Sudan, told The Associated Press.

Some who have already returned to Malakal from Sudan say they’re unsure if there’s a home to go back to, having had no contact with their families during the civil war.

“I don’t know if my relatives are dead or alive,” said William Deng. The 33-year-old hasn’t been able to speak to his family in neighboring Jonglei state, which has little phone service, since returning in early May.

The government says that it has funding for 10 charter planes to fly people from Renk to parts of the country harder to reach by boat. But Renk’s tiny airport can’t support large planes, so each flight can only hold 80 people.

“The situation is dire … (South Sudan) is now being forced to receive additional refugees and returnees. As a result, the humanitarian needs in the country will continue to grow,” said Michael Dunford, regional director for East Africa for the World Food Program.

Even before this crisis, 70% of the population needed humanitarian assistance, and the World Food Program can’t meet their needs, he said.

Traders in Renk, who get the majority of their goods from Sudan, say they’re already feeling the economic pain, with prices spiking 70%.

“I used to send my family $100 a week. Now I send half that,” said Adam Abdalla Hassan.

The Sudanese shop owner supports his family in Sudan, but now is earning less because people don’t have enough money, he said.

Those who returned say they’ve received little information about where or how they’re supposed to get home, and worry they won’t make it in time before the rainy reason, which starts soon, floods roads and makes it harder to fly.

“How can we stay here under the rain with the kids?” said Ehlam Saad. Holding up her UN-issued wristband, the 42-year-old said she’s been living in Renk for nearly three weeks. She has no idea how she’ll get to the capital of South Sudan, Juba, where she and her family lived before the war. Her only choice now is to find a way home and reunite with her husband and son, she said.

“A home is a home. Even if there’s fighting, even if you move around the world, even if it’s the worst option, it’s home,” she said.

Sam Mednick, The Associated Press

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