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UN braces for uncontrolled return of Sudan displaced

by Simon Apiku, RUMBEK, Sudan: (AFP) 

Rebecca Yar did not wait for this month's peace agreement to head home to south Sudan, she simply packed up her meagre belongings and left the Khartoum camp that had been her makeshift home through years of war.

The journey lasted two months and cost the lives of her two sons.

But she escaped with her life, something she attributes to a large plastic canister which kept her supplied with clean water and which remains her most treasured possession.

Now she lives with some 400 other returnees in a small settlement outside the bombed-out southern town of Rumbek, where the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement has set up its headquarters.

With the rebels set to run an autonomous administration for the south under the terms of last week's peace deal, the United Nations fears that the trickle of returns will become a flood, overwhelming its ability to provide for them.

"We are working with them (the rebels) to establish appropriate institutions to manage this," the UN humanitarian coordinator for southern Sudan, W. David Gressly, told AFP.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that at least 3.5 million of southern Sudan's 10 million people were displaced by the 21-year civil war. Of those, some 500,000 found refuge beyond Sudan's borders.

"We don't expect all of them to come back at once, but we do expect them to come back," said Gressly.

Nobody knows exactly how many of the displaced have already headed home as no structures exist for returnees to register their arrival.

But it is estimated that thousands returned last year as hopes of a peace deal rose and that many more have followed in the days since it was actually signed.

UN officials stumbled onto Yar's camp by accident. Many of its residents arrived in April last year, but UN agencies did not find out about them until August and only started registering them in November.

The UNHCR expects anywhere between 500,000 and 1.2 million people to return to the south this year, the majority of them from northern Sudan and neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Kenya.

Yar and her fellow returnees remain stuck in their makeshift camp dependent on handouts from the World Food Programme because their homes were destroyed in the war and they have nowhere else to go.

One of Africa's least developed regions even before the war, south Sudan now lacks the most basic infrastructure and the UNHCR estimates that this year alone it will cost at least 60 million dollars to reintegrate returnees.

"The first challenge I think is water, particularly for those returns coming to Bahr El-Ghazal," said Gressly.

Education also poses a challenge, especially for those returning home from northern Sudan.

"They are coming from an educational background which has been based on Arabic instruction and here it is English-language instruction," said Gressly.

Food is another immense problem in a region where UN agencies say there is already a risk of famine.

The World Food Programme says 3.2 million people are threatened with starvation this year and has appealed for 302 million dollars in contributions from UN member states.

Erratic rainfall last year caused the harvest to fail in many parts of southern Sudan. The UN estimates that 48 percent of children under five in rebel-held areas suffer from chronic malnutrition while 21 percent suffer from acute malnutrition.

In a bid to address the challenges, UN agencies have begun moving their offices to southern Sudan from the Kenyan border where they were based during the war. But officials concede that logistical problems are still hobbling their response. "There is very little infrastructure," said Gressly.

The deadly legacy of an estimated three to five million landmines planted by government forces and the rebels is the biggest obstacle, making road travel dangerous if not impossible.

"It's as serious as anywhere else in the world where there is a mine problem in population areas," said Dave McIvor, an operations officer for the United Nations Mines Action Service.

The Swiss Foundation for Demining (FSD) has been conducting a survey of demining needs under contract to the United Nations.

"The priority at the moment throughout Sudan is to clear the roads," said Michael Story, a supervisor for the FSD.

But in a region where even the most basic needs frequently go unmet, UN officials say it is difficult to get residents to take the problem seriously.

"People just say: 'We have been living with these mines for years and nothing happened. Talk to us about food and water,'" said Diana Surur, an assistant project officer for UNICEF's Mine Risk Education programme.

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