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Long wait for journey home for southerners in Sudan

A barge at Kosti waystation waiting to sail for South Sudan.
© UNICEF Sudan/2012/PKhanna
A barge waiting at Kosti waystation to leave for South Sudan.

More than six months after the secession of South Sudan, thousands of southern Sudanese are still trying to make the journey southwards to start new lives in the recently-formed state. The UN estimates that 700,000 south Sudanese remain in Khartoum and other parts of Sudan, anxious to leave before an April deadline set by the Sudanese authorities.

Priyanka Khanna travelled to Kosti Way Station, 350 kilometres south of Khartoum, one of the most important departure points for families heading to the south.

Kosti Waystation, 26 January 2012 -- A raggedy doll is all that 18-year-old Sabina Saisa has left to remind her of her best friend, Jacqueline.

Sabina, Jacqueline and their families arrived at Kosti Waystation last June to start the journey to their new homeland -- South Sudan.

Jacqueline left in late December aboard an overcrowded barge heading up the Nile towards Juba, capital of South Sudan.

“I was hoping Jacqueline and I would stay together. But now she is gone, and I have no idea where and when I will be able to follow her,” says Sabina tearfully.

Sabina is among an estimated 12,000 southerners who have endured a long and uncomfortable wait at the crowded waystation in order to travel via the only relatively safe route south. The movement of people and their belongings has been excruciatingly slow, and thousands of people have been stranded. Meant as a transit point for no more than 2,000 people, all of Kosti’s facilities are overstretched.

NGOs and UN agencies like IOM, UNHCR, WFP and UNICEF, have been working with limited resources to meet the travellers’ minimum needs. “There are acute shortages of water, food, blankets, sanitation and so on. We are using up our savings waiting here,” says Stephan Badidi, a community leader.

Babies have been born here with names like “Meena” -- meaning port -- or “Toub” which means tired.Young children have suffered more than most. Two-year-old Dona Simon fell ill in August and is now being treated at a UNICEF-supported nutrition centre. Young children have suffered more than most. Two-year-old Dona Simon fell ill in August and is now being treated at a UNICEF-supported nutrition centre. With no provision for schools, children are missing out on education.

A child-friendly space in Kosti.
© UNICEF Sudan/2012/PKhanna
A child-friendly space in Kosti.

For the ones who manage to get on the barges, joy knows no bounds. “I know it won’t be easy to start a new life but I am hopeful,” says Ragena Okage, a feisty 40-year-old mother. “I will form women’s groups just like the ones in the camps here,” she says.

As a security volunteer on the barge, Ragena’s already has her work cut out. The journey takes about three weeks and the barge is packed with 3,200 people, way more than capacity. Two children died during the last voyage. Since then, people have been given orientation on barge safety, hygiene and water safety by UNICEF-funded non-government organisations. The most vulnerable have been flown to Juba – including children like 12-year-old Victoria Patrice who was found to be suffering from malaria and typhoid and was taken off a barge moments before it sailed.

Experts say that an estimated 700,000 southerners in Sudan need to acquire Sudanese residency by 08 April as per the deadline set by Khartoum. At the moment, the only way to do that is to go to South Sudan and obtain South Sudanese identification. The UN has been urging the governments of Sudan and South Sudan to issue nationality and residency documentation and to implement fair procedures for southerners. A sense of uncertainty and frustration is discernable among the people, especially after recent reports of ethnic clashes in South Sudan and reports of child recruitment.

But the urge to help each other is palpable and especially evident in the child-friendly space set up by community members for children to play, draw, sing, dance and learn. Hanan John, 30, says: “I bring my son here and make sure every child in my neighbourhood comes here.”

It’s resilience like this that enables people in Kosti to keep smiling. Sabina is the latest volunteer to join the child-friendly space. “Together, we shall overcome,” she says simply.



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