Aid Agencies, Returnees Face Enormous Challenges in Sudan

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Part One

South Sudan is one of the least developed places on earth, and now thousands are seeking to return after a 20-year civil war. In the second part of a series, Jason Beaubien reports on the challenges facing international aid agencies, former rebels and refugees coming home.


This morning we're also following the aftermath of the war in Sudan. This year a peace agreement ended 22 years of fighting. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army and the government in Khartoum agreed to make southern Sudan a semi-autonomous region. Now millions of people who fled during the war are attempting to return home. In the second part of a series on south Sudan, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that international aid agencies and the rebels-turned-administrators are facing huge challenges.


In the upper Nile region of the border with north Sudan, about 40 villagers have gathered to greet the leader of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army's humanitarian wing.

(Soundbite of cheering and wailing)

Unidentified Man #1: (Chanting in foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: Half the men in the crowd carry well-worn AK-47 rifles and wear the green battle fatigues of the SPLA. Pagol used to be a village, but now it's just a dusty airstrip surrounded by sun-scorched elephant grass. People fled here during the war, and after the local well was destroyed, no one bothered to return. But the village still exists on United Nations maps, and locals complain that emergency food rations are always dropped in Pagol several hours' walk from where anyone lives. As cicadas buzz in the bushes behind them, they tell the SPLA representative that for much of the year, they have no clean water. John Bolle(ph), who returned to the area from Khartoum in December, says his family is forced to drink at times from stagnant pools.

Mr. JOHN BOLLE: (Through Translator) Those water pools, when they're used for drink, then they all give you diarrhea. And the distance that we used to go out and fetch the water is very far from us. And the women that we have in the city in Khartoum, they don't even carry a small jerrican on their heads.

BEAUBIEN: Last year the sorghum crop, which is the staple commodity here, failed across most of southern Sudan. Bolle says the lack of food and water has forced some people who returned to the south to go back to Khartoum.

Mr. BOLLE: (Through Translator) And, you know, the worst thing for us as returnees, to come back here, we don't even have a chicken or a goat or a cow where you can even make a foundation for your life. You can't even build your ...(unintelligible) or you make some other human needs.

BEAUBIEN: Each person who stands up to speak says that the community is desperate for water. One adds that they need schools. Another says they need a permanent health clinic. The lone aid agency working in the county is Doctors Without Borders, but they only come in occasionally with a mobile clinic. One woman says she grew old without her children, because they fled during the war. Now that her children have returned, her greatest fear is that they will leave her again, because here they have nothing. The SPLA official asks the villagers to be patient. He tells them that the SPLA still hasn't formed a government. If in a year the government and the international aid agencies still haven't brought them assistance, then, he says, they should complain. But some of the villagers don't know if they can wait that long.

(Soundbite of nuts being cracked)

BEAUBIEN: A couple of hundred miles south of the dusty airstrip in Pagol, where the villagers are begging for water, some 3,000 people are living in a barren field under bushes and small trees. An old woman is cracking lalop nuts between two thick sticks. Locals only eat the tough-shelled nuts when other food supplies have run out. It's not just water and food that people lack in southern Sudan. They also lack police, courts and the other instruments that keep order in a society. After two decades of war, southern Sudan is littered with young men and some old men with AK-47s. Over the last month, there have been isolated intratribal clashes, mainly over cattle, in several different areas that have left scores of people dead.

Mr. REUBEN REET(ph): (Through Translator) This conflict started slowly and then, at the end, become a full war, an entire tribal fight.

BEAUBIEN: Reuben Reet says all the people in this field fled across the Nile to get away from the fighting. Many of their villages, he says, were completely destroyed.

Mr. REET: (Through Translator) People were killed, some of them injured, properties looted, houses burned down.

(Soundbite of child crying)

BEAUBIEN: A woman named Abwul Aro Atem(ph) is sitting on a goatskin with her 12-month-old baby.

Ms. ABWUL ARO ATEM: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: She fled her village three days ago, she says. Her house was burned, and an attacker struck her baby with a stick. The girl still has an open wound across the crown of her forehead. Aid agencies have been scrambling to try to provide food to people whose crops failed or who recently returned from exile with nothing. Now local chiefs are asking the World Food Program to help feed thousands of additional villagers, like this woman, who've been driven from their homes by clan fighting. Eva Colondo(ph), with the WFP's office in Rumbek, says the needs across all of south Sudan are enormous.

Ms. EVA COLONDO (World Food Program, Rumbek): South Sudan is destroyed. The level of underdevelopment is almost prehistoric.

BEAUBIEN: Southern Sudan is a swath of territory larger than France that for decades hasn't had a functioning government. Now that there's peace, almost all the basic instruments of a modern society need to be recreated here. For instance, no one has identity documents. Even the political leadership of the SPLA travel on Kenyan or Ugandan passports because there's simply no one to issue passports for the southern Sudanese. The WFP is building dirt roads to link the south with Uganda and Kenya and eventually with the river barges that ply the Nile. They're clearing roads of land mines. UNICEF is opening schools and launching a huge vaccination campaign. Colondo says there's an opportunity right now to show ordinary south Sudanese that peace can make a dramatic difference in their lives.

Ms. COLONDO: It's one of the poorest, poorest regions in the world, and you need to see it to believe it. Therefore, the only way we can make southern Sudanese, for many who have never lived peace in more than two generations, is to show them that it's different.

BEAUBIEN: The former rebels still are in the process of setting up a government, and even once they do, they won't be able to provide the basic necessities that their people need. Colondo says the burden for that falls on the international community.

Ms. COLONDO: The international community must do its part. I mean, the international community ...(unintelligible) this peace process. They must make it stick, and if they don't do it now, there's no telling what can happen.

BEAUBIEN: Unlike the relief assistance that flowed into here for years on end during the two-decade-long civil war, there's the possibility that the new efforts by international aid agencies could lay the building blocks for a new country. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Rumbek, southern Sudan.

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