Refugees Face New Threats in Post-War Sudan

For more than two decades, Sudan has been embroiled in a bitter civil war between the central government and rebel guerrillas in the mostly Christian, non-Arab south. A year-old peace deal has slowed the fighting, but many who fled the region are facing new post-war threats.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, the embodiment of TV camp, "Batman" turns 40.

But first, a year ago, Sudan's Muslim-dominated government reached an agreement with Christian and animist fighters in the south of the country. That pact ended more than 20 years of conflict. Now the south is experiencing a rare period of peace, but life is still very tough there, particularly for those who fled their homeland during the conflict and now want to return. NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently visited southern Sudan and she filed this report.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT reporting:

It's Sunday morning in Akan village, and dozens of men, women and children are worshipping at their cathedral, a giant leafy fruit tree on a gently sloping hill.

(Soundbite of church service)

Unidentified Woman: This is what God wants from you.

HUNTER-GAULT: They're giving thanks to God with no sign of the tensions that underlie their joyful noises, for even though the guns of war are silent, there are other threats to this tenuous peace--hunger and the ill health that go along with not having enough to eat.

(Soundbite of aircraft)

HUNTER-GAULT: Air drops of food are still necessary in Bahr el Ghazal, a region with the highest needs of any in southern Sudan. Charles Nwati(ph) of the United Nations World Food Program.

Mr. CHARLES NWATI (United Nations World Food Program): Their food situation is pretty bad and expected to get worse, especially the coming in of the returnees because that's putting more pressure on the few resources that people already have.

HUNTER-GAULT: Some 200,000 of the estimated four million Southerners displaced by the war are reported to have returned home since the year-old peace agreement. But many thousands more have yet to make the arduous trek along roads destroyed by the war and the seasonal, incessant rains of up to six months out of a year, rains that will soon come again.

Mr. NWATI: The other limiting factor is that if only move in by air, we can only be able to access communities that have airstrips, yet there are more needy communities farther in and that's the story that--that other face that we never really get to see.

HUNTER-GAULT: Recently the United Nations organized go-see visits for delegations of refugees from camps in neighboring Kenya. A number of non-governmental organizations have set up to assist in the movement of people and cattle, their primary livelihood. But many, like Acho Matiana(ph) and her husband and three children, ages 15, six and three, made the trek from the north virtually alone, on foot.

Ms. ACHO MATIANA (Sudanese Refugee): (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER-GAULT: With more animation than might be expected, Matiana says she walked for seven days to reach Akan village, the home of her husband. I found her lying on a tattered straw mat inside her mother-in-law's tuko(ph), a tiny mud-and-grass hut, the housing of the area. She's exhausted from the journey she's just completed the night before.

Ms. MATIANA: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER-GAULT: Matiana says her right foot is badly swollen and hurting. She also says it was hard traveling with her life's possessions in two large boxes and several bags, along with a few utensils and a radio-tape player that she may not hear for a long time, since there's no electricity in a tuko. Matiana says the two younger children were crying a lot, and she and her husband paid people with their socks and other items of clothing to help carry them.

Ms. MATIANA: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER-GAULT: Matiana and her family of four now share the tiny tuko with her mother-in-law and her two adult children, and a few small lizards crawling around the walls. But Matiana says she's better off.

Ms. MATIANA: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER-GAULT: `Living with Arabs is no good,' she says. `Now there is peace, we cannot live with them again because they're mistreating people.' She says her family initially fled the south because of war and hunger. She now says she has hope that things will be different because she's seen the sign of peace--the silence of the guns.

Ms. MATIANA: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER-GAULT: But there is growing concern that that silence may not last. Returnees may come home bringing diseases from other countries, especially HIV-AIDS, which officials in Akan village say is virtually non-existent there. And the United Nations has warned these elements, plus the possibility of crime being introduced by desperate returnees, is presenting one of the most daunting challenges humanitarian relief agencies have ever faced.

WFP's Charles Nwati says there isn't enough food for those already in Bahr el Ghazal, and that the appeals to the international community have fallen on deaf ears. He says this is a recipe for potential disaster.

Mr. NWATI: At the end of the day, you need food in your tummy, you need to have a roof over your head, you need your kids to go to school, you need health services to be able to feel you have a life. So if all these things are not addressed, the fact that guns are not firing for me doesn't mean that the war is over. We still have other issues to address.

(Soundbite of church service)

HUNTER-GAULT: As the villagers of Akan give thanks to God on a Sunday morning, the hope and the prayer is that the world will hear their pleas to be delivered from hunger and disease so that the sound of peace will prevail.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News.

(Soundbite of church service)

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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