- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 11, 2011

JUBA, Sudan (AP) — By Nile River barge and overcrowded bus, southern Sudanese who once fled their homeland’s two-decade civil war are streaming back by the thousands every day as the region holds a vote to create a new country.

The trip is not without peril, though. Up to 10 southerners traveling in a vehicle convoy were killed Monday in an attack by Arab tribesmen while crossing Sudan‘s contested middle, in the same region that international officials worry could pull the north and south back toward mass conflict.

For most returnees, the trip is safe — and joyous. Many southerners, who are black and either Christian or animist, say they face severe discrimination in Sudan‘s north, which is dominated by Arabs who are Muslim. The first returnees arrived in the fall to register and vote in this week’s referendum. Others are now fleeing out of fear.

“Khartoum is dangerous. Khartoum is no good. If you are black, nobody helps you with a job,” said Benet Alfred Zacharia, 27, referring to Sudan‘s northern capital.

Some southerners, though, say they have built a live for themselves in the north. Aldod Akon Deng, 65, voted earlier this week for unity instead of a separate country.

“I am here since 1964. My kids are all born in Khartoum. That’s why I voted for unity,” Mr. Deng said. “I’ve been raised here. My family grew up here. Even if there’s separation, I’ll stay here.”

Still, the United Nations says that 2,000 southerners have been returning each day since the beginning of the month and that 150,000 already have arrived. Up to a half-million are expected back by July, when Southern Sudan is expected to fully gain independence, according to the south’s government. The United Nations thinks the number will reach 250,000 by March.

Juba’s Nile River port has seen dozens of barges unload southern returnees since late October, when voter registration for the referendum began.

Small piles of home life dot the shore: cheap plastic chairs, large family-style cooking pots, and a puffy couch set. Kids wash dishes in the river near barges that are anchored to the grove’s mango trees.

The returnees typically stay at the port for a couple days as the United Nations helps sort out their medical status and onward transportation. Families sleep out under the stars in a wooded area where kids climb mango trees to shake the fruit loose. Plastic water bottles litter the ground.

Despite the conditions, most returnees seem content.

“I have not seen my relatives since I left. I’m so happy to see them,” said Mary Paul, 37, who migrated to Khartoum in 1987.

For Ms. Paul, who lived with her five children in a tin-roof shack in a settlement of southerners in Khartoum’s outskirts, life turned even more difficult after her husband died in 2007. Her main income came from brewing marissa, an alcohol made from sorghum and dates. But the profession landed her in jail four times in recent years because alcohol is forbidden for Muslims.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said last month he would more deeply entrench strict Islamic Sharia law in the northern half of his country if the south secedes, a situation that could prove problematic to Christian southerners.

Southerners living in the north fear the consequences of the vote based on “very hostile rhetoric” coming from the north, said Jehanne Henry, Human Rights Watch’s top researcher in Sudan.

“So it’s understandable that that environment of uncertainty about their fate combined with the sense of excitement about the southern secession would draw them to the south,” Ms. Henry said. “Southerners in the north have always been second-class citizens … for example, arrests based on clothing, arrests of people who brew alcohol.”

The barge trips from Khartoum to Juba can take two to three weeks and cost about $25, though the government also is providing free tickets. The trip by land, though, can be deadly.

Arab tribesmen attacked a vehicle convoy carrying southerners traveling from the north, killing between two and 10 people, the south’s minister of internal affairs, Maj. Gen. Gier Chuang Aluong, said Tuesday.

A leader of the Misseriya tribe that was blamed for the violence denied there was an attack.

But Gen. Aluong said he had been told by the governor of Northern Bahr El Ghazal — a southern state — that 10 people were killed and 18 wounded in the Monday attack. The governor of Southern Kordofan — a northern state — said that two were killed and 10 wounded. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained.

Southern Sudan‘s weeklong independence referendum began Sunday and is likely to split Sudan in two along its Arab-African faultline. The vote was part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of north-south civil war that killed 2 million people. Besides the attack on the returnees, several skirmishes have been reported since Friday, and it’s possible about 40 people have died, though the death tolls have often been disputed.

If southerners vote for independence, issues such as north-south oil rights, water rights to the White Nile, border demarcation and the status of Abyei remain to be worked out. Most of Sudan‘s oil is in the south, while the pipelines to the sea run through the north, tying the two regions together economically.

Justin Dwoki, who works for the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, said most of the returnees were scared in the north and are happy to be back despite their simple initial living conditions.

“They’re just happy. They’re reached their land,” he said.

Felix Vincensio spent 12 days on a river barge with his wife and child. The 31-year-old Mr. Vincensio had been in Khartoum for about a decade but said he was tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, even by taxi drivers.

“When they see a black man, they say five pounds ($1.66). If they see an Arab, they say 2 pounds ($0.66),” Mr. Vincensio said.

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Khartoum, Sudan.


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