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Tens of thousands of people are pouring back into southern Sudan in anticipation the region will choose independence in a referendum next month. The vote would split Africas largest country and create the worlds newest nation. But southern Sudan is desperately poor and undeveloped. As NPRs Frank Langfitt reports, some people whove already gone back to the south wonder whether the would-be nation can handle many more returnees.
FRANK LANGFITT: In the early years of Sudans Civil War, William Madouks parents fled the fighting in south Sudan and settled in the northern capital of Khartoum. That was more than two decades ago. William wasnt even born. Although hes spent his whole life in the north, he says he hates living there.
Mr. WILLIAM MADOUK: They tell us that we are heathens, mean that we dont believe in one god. And at the same time, they say that those people they dont have the right to work here.
LANGFITT: Madouk, like many southern Sudanese, is a Christian African. Khartoum is an Arab Muslim city. Madouk says he and his friends are routinely harassed even jailed by police for things like un-Islamic dress in this case, blue jeans. Madouk is an English major at a university in Khartoum. Although hes never actually seen south Sudan, he cant wait to move there.
Mr. MADOUK: It is better for us to go back to south Sudan and build our country - a country that there is freedom of expression, freedom of choice and also freedom to do whatever you want like to do.
LANGFITT: And what would you do there? Are there jobs?
Mr. MADOUK: Until now, I dont know whether there will be or not. But it is there. Even if there is no job, I will feel ok there, because it is my land. Im ready. Im ready to go. I will not wait even one minute.
LANGFITT: Humanitarian organizations estimate that tens of thousands of people will flood into the south in the next few weeks. By most accounts, south Sudan isnt ready. Last month, 2,700 returnees came to Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity State, and had to be housed in schools and disrupted classes. Others arrived in Juba, south Sudans capital, and had to sleep on the ground, waiting for government help. On the edge of Juba, are rapidly-growing communities of returnees.
People who move from Khartoum to the south often end up in places like this. Its a community called Gudele West. About four or five years ago, there were just 500 families here. Now, there are 4,000. But there are no services. There's no electricity, no water, no sewer. And most people just live in mud huts with these iron roofs that shimmer in the sun. Many of them have found that life is a lot tougher than they expected it would be.
Sabit Abdullah Batali worked as a driver for an aid organization in Khartoum. After north and south Sudan signed a peace deal in 2005, he was among the hundreds of thousands who decided to come to Juba. Except for a brief stint as a driver soon after he arrived, Batali hasnt worked in years.
Mr. SABIT ABDULLAH BATALI: (Through translator) Life in Khartoum was better, because I was working. Here in the south, Im in my homeland. But the government doesnt care about us. We are waiting. How is the government of the south going to handle us? Were waiting for that moment.
LANGFITT: After two decades of war and neglect, south Sudan had little infrastructure. Its nearly the size of Texas, but has few paved roads. Juba University the souths best school is so overcrowded, students have to lug their own water and pack 15 to a dorm room.
Sabit Batali lives in a house made of mud and wood he built by hand. Asked how he pays for food, his eyes well up. He says he begs.
Mr. BATALI: (Through translator) I have brothers and friends where I used to work. When I see them, they give me ten or twenty dollars. Anytime I meet someone, I ask for help. Thats how I survive.
LANGFITT: Batali isnt unusual. Officials in Gudele West say unemployment there is 90 percent. Those who have jobs often must create their own, whether its gathering firewood or using a gas-powered generator to charge peoples cell phones.
Mr. ISAAC AMIN CORNELIO (Secretary, Gudele West): The community grows every day.
LANGFITT: Isaac Amin Cornelio serves as secretary for Gudele West. He says the community cant handle more people.
Mr. CORNELIO: We have nothing to give them, unless what we can give them suggests we show them that this place you can stay here. But we have nothing in hand as a community to supply to them.
LANGFITT: On several occasions, I tried to talk to the southern governments Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs about their plans for returnees. The Ministry never made anyone available. Isaac Cornelio says the government encouraged people to return to the south for the referendum. Now, he says, southern officials have a responsibility to help returnees build new lives here.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.