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Sudan unrest leads thousands to leave

by SAM MEDNICK The Associated Press | May 28, 2023 at 3:07 a.m.
South Sudanese sit under the shade of a makeshift bus stop in Renk, South Sudan Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese are flocking home from neighboring Sudan, which erupted in violence last month. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

RENK, South Sudan -- Tens of thousands of exhausted people are heading home to South Sudan as they flee a brutal conflict in neighboring Sudan.

There's a bottleneck of men, women and children camping near the dusty border of Sudan and South Sudan and the international community and the government are worried about a prolonged conflict.

Fighting between Sudan's military and a rival militia killed at least 863 civilians in Sudan before a seven-day cease-fire began last week. Many in South Sudan are concerned about what could happen if the fighting next-door continues.

Years of fighting between government and opposition forces in South Sudan killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions until a peace agreement was signed nearly five years ago. Enacting a solid peace has been sluggish: The country has yet to deploy a unified military and create a permanent constitution.

Large-scale clashes between the main parties have subsided, but there is still fighting in parts of the country.

The most immediate concern is the tens of thousands of South Sudanese who are returning with no idea how they'll get home to their towns and villages. Many are unable to afford the trip. Aid groups and the government are stretched for resources they can use to help.

About 50,000 people have crossed into the border town of Renk, many sheltering in stick huts along the road and in government buildings throughout the city. Some wander aimlessly in the market, desperately asking foreigners how to get home. People are arriving faster than they can be taken to new locations.

The longer they stay, the greater the risk of fighting between communities, many with longstanding grievances stemming from the civil war. Many are frustrated because they don't know what lies ahead.

The power struggle in South Sudan between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, took on an ethnic dimension during the civil war. Communities in Renk said the conflict that broke out over water in May and led to the killing of a man quickly became a wider dispute between the ethnic groups, forcing people to flee once again.

At first, the local government wanted to divide the South Sudanese returning through Renk based on their place of origin. Aid groups, however, pushed back.

Together with the government and community leaders, the aid groups are engaging in peace dialogues.

At the northernmost tip of South Sudan, Renk is connected to other parts of the country by few roads. The main routes are flights or boat trips along the Nile, and many people can't afford them.

The United Nations' International Organization for Migration is trying to send the most vulnerable South Sudanese who have returned -- some 8,000 people -- home by boat, with the goal of transporting nearly 1,000 people daily along the Nile to the state capital of Malakal. However, the trips have just begun, and problems in coordination between aid groups and the government at the port this month delayed people from leaving, with children, babies and the sick camped by empty boats for days under the scorching sun.

Aid workers say it could take up to two months to decongest the city, which has nearly doubled in size. But Malakal already hosts some 44,000 displaced people in a United Nations protection camp, many still too afraid to leave for security reasons.

"The problem is 'an out of the frying pan, into the fire' conundrum, because we're moving them to Malakal, and Malakal is itself congested," Nicholas Haysom, the United Nations chief in South Sudan, told The Associated Press.

The government says it has funding for 10 charter planes to fly people from Renk to parts of the country harder to reach by boat, but Renk's airport can't support large planes, so each flight can only hold 80 people.

"The situation is dire ... [South Sudan] is now being forced to receive additional refugees and returnees. As a result, the humanitarian needs in the country will continue to grow," said Michael Dunford, regional director for East Africa for the World Food Program.

Even before this crisis, 70% of the population needed humanitarian assistance, and the World Food Program can't meet their needs, he said.

Print Headline: Sudan unrest leads thousands to leave


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