Airlift of South Sudanese from Sudan gets under way

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The first group of around 12,000 South Sudanese ordered out of Sudan last month as conflict flared between the two neighbours flew into the southern nation’s capital Juba in an internationally backed humanitarian airlift.

They are among hundreds of thousands of Southerners living in Sudan who lost jobs and were left without official residency papers after South Sudan broke away last July to become the world’s newest independent state.

The Southerners’ plight in the north has become more acute as simmering disputes between Khartoum and Juba over oil exports, border demarcation and reciprocal citizenship rights erupted into fighting along the frontier last month, Reuters reports.

Plans for deals to grant reciprocal residency and freedom of movement stalled because of the outbreak of fighting, which has since ended. The United Nations Security Council demanded both sides settle their disputes peacefully or face sanctions.

A charter plane flew 164 people from Khartoum to Juba on Monday, the start of an airlift organised by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) of thousands of Southerners who had been stranded at the Sudanese port of Kosti on the Nile.

Last month, Sudanese authorities in Kosti accused some 12,000 South Sudanese gathered in the area of posing a security and environmental threat and ordered them to leave.

The first evacuees, consisting mostly of women in brightly coloured shawls accompanied by young children and some men, were met by IOM and South Sudanese officials and taken by bus to a dusty reception camp on the outskirts of Juba operated by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
“I’m very happy to be here,” said Helen Mussa, smiling but weary and clearly a little apprehensive as she sat with others on benches under a tin roof in oppressive heat at the temporary camp.

As the convoy of buses carried the newly arrived Southerners from the airport, some Juba residents waved and smiled and at one point a group of women ululated in joyful greeting.
“This is yours, this is where you belong. Welcome home,” the acting governor of Central Equatoria State where Juba is located, Manasse Lomore, told the group.

Terencio Lako Mario, 47, a laboratory technician who said he had lived in the north in Sudan for the last 28 years, said he was glad to be back in his now independent home country.
“We faced a lot of difficulties in the North. We were not getting health attention, we had problems with education for our children and housing and we were forced to live outside Khartoum,” he told Reuters.
“It’s a big change. When you start a new life, there will always be challenges but I am prepared to face them,” he added.

IOM officials said most of the first group flown in had relatives in Central Equatoria State and so would be able to reintegrate back into the community.

HARD ADJUSTMENT FOR SOME

IOM’s Chief of Mission in Khartoum, Jill Helke, said several thousand Southerners had been registered for the flights so far, but it was unclear how many would finally take the option.

There would be another flight on Monday and the number of daily flights in the airlift would increase.
“We should have been able to start yesterday, we were not in the end allowed to fly for security reasons. But we’re starting today and hope things will go smoothly from now on,” Helke said.

Earlier at Khartoum airport, as the flight prepared to leave, South Sudan’s Ambassador to Sudan, Kau Nak Maper, told reporters that the flights would continue until the last Southerner who wished to return came back safely.
“Every Southerner that wants to return voluntarily to South Sudan, will get a chance to travel,” he said.

Most of the passengers carried only hand luggage, some only canvas sacks. A truck loaded up hundreds more bags outside Khartoum airport, preparing to take them to the South by road.

A barge carrying some 1,700 Southerners down the Nile from Kosti was due to arrive in Juba later this week.

The IOM and other humanitarian agencies are working with South Sudan’s authorities to prepare better facilities to be able to receive the flow of Southerners expected from the north.

Although most of the Southerners on the first flight appeared pleased to be in South Sudan, for those who were born in the north or who had spent most of their lives there, it was clear that the adjustment could be a big strain.
“We’ve been in the north for a long time. We were born here, grew up here, and studied here. Now we’re going back to our country, and it’s hard for us,” said Julia Richard, 23, as she prepared to board the flight with her four children.

More than half a million more South Sudanese remain in the north, most without residency papers and treated as foreigners.

In Juba, the capital of South Sudan, thousands of Sudanese citizens also face a new government that has declared them expatriates. But it has not yet imposed any new rules for residency papers and appears willing to let them stay.