Karina O’Meara is a CRS Business Development and Communications Program manager in Juba, Sudan. She reports on Sudanese leaving the north to start new lives in southern Sudan.
It was mid-morning when we arrived at the Juba River Port last week and it was jostling with the sounds of people unloading bedding, horses, cars, and cooking supplies from the four open-air containers that flanked a large passenger boat. An estimated 700 people had made the up-to-15-day journey from Khartoum and Kosti to reach southern Sudan’s largest city.
Each day, in the lead up to the referendum, thousands of people have flooded into Juba and other main cities across the south. Every day people arrive en masse on boats, planes, and buses. The International Organization of Migration calculates that around 116,000 Sudanese left northern Sudan in government organized returns to the south in the past two months. An additional 49,000 traveled to south by other means.
The returnees bring their most prized possessions. One little girl in a sun-bleached pale orange dress, about age 11, clutched a well-traveled wooden desk, leaving no doubt who owned it.
I’ve been reading the numbers on returnees. I get the daily updates. But it wasn’t until I saw that boat that it really struck me how much people are enduring to arrive here. The boat was two stories high, but with 700 passengers, I imagined that in order to lie down people must have slept in shifts. They all brought with them bags of provisions such as lentils and flour that they prepared along their journey. These were far from luxury accommodations—the boat was made up of small rooms with unscreened metal bars for windows.
At the port, people were everywhere, unloading their items quickly, I had to be nimble on my feet in order to avoid being hit by bed frames, boxes, or gardening equipment. Some women stooped by the river to launder their clothes, children were using 12-yard-long poles to pluck the ripe mangos from the trees that lined the banks, while others fed the horses.
I scanned the faces of these passengers and realized they’ve left everything the barge couldn’t carry to start anew. Each and every one of these passengers is going to need some type of assistance. The children all speak Arabic but the schools here are taught mostly in English. The men need jobs. The families need shelter.
A lot of these new arrivals will go to live with relatives. On the outside it might look like there’s no crisis, but the truth is the families are in serious crisis. Many people here are barely getting by. Just imagine if you were a family of 5 in the United States and suddenly 20 relatives show up and you’re responsible for them? That’s what it’s like for many in southern Sudan.
The work ahead for agencies like Catholic Relief Services, the government of southern Sudan, and for the people themselves is huge. There is still much left to be done.
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