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Spontaneous return of refugees on rise in Magwi

By Sasuk Taban

Rebecca Iteng is one of the millions of South Sudanese who fled the country in 2013 for refuge in Uganda due to the civil war.

She fled the country with her three children for Palabek camp in Uganda after the war broke out in 2016. After staying at the camp in Uganda for three years, she opted to return to Magwi County, Torit State with her family.

She narrated her story to during LWF visit to Magwi in July 2019 to assess the situation of the returnees.

She said life at the camp was hard for her and her family.

“I was unable to pay school fees for my children, food rations were inadequate and were never given on time,” she said.

She further said that after spending months at the camp and seeing the situation was not improving, she decided to return home.

“I hoped and prayed that the situation at the camp would improve but it did not. I had had enough and so I packed my few belongings like clothes, cooking utensils, got my children and embarked on my journey back home,” she narrated.

Iteng proceeded to state that her reason for returning home is to look for means to send her children to school and because peace has been restored in the country.

She said although she is only two weeks old in the country from the camp, she has been warmly welcomed by her family, friends and the community in Magwi where she and her children have resettled.

“My children and I are temporarily living in my brother’s house until we find a place of our own and it is he and friends who are supporting us with food,” she added.

She further called on Non-Governmental Organizations working within the state to support the returnees with basic human needs such as food, shelter and help them with farming tools and seeds for them to engage in agriculture.

Iteng further called on South Sudanese who are still at the refugee camps to return home for peace has been restored in the country.

Another returnee, Achola Sharon shares the same sentiments with Rebecca.

Achola said her husband together with her five children fled Omeo village in Magwi County for Morobi refugee camp in Uganda due to the 2013 crisis.

“Life at the camp was not easy; the food rations were inadequate and access to proper medical health care was impossible,” she said.

“The food rations at first were good but after one year they began rationing the food. Six people are given; 25 kgs of maize, 2 kgs of beans and 2 kgs of cooking oil and that cannot take one month,” Achola added.

“For people like me who had small farms and engaged in agriculture, cultivating maize, we would constantly face harassment from the host community whenever we took our produce to sell at the market,” Achola stressed.

She disclosed how she would go to the market to sell her produce only for a Ugandan trader to approach her and claim that the space where she had displayed her goods was actually theirs and she would be forced to move to another spot only for another trader to do the same thing to her.

“This went on for quite some time and I was forced to quit farming and rely solely on the humanitarian aid offered to refugees,” Achola said with bitterness.

She said that the challenges she faced at the camp; food, health care and education forced her and her family to return to their ancestral home.

“Fees for primary one to three costs 30,000 Ugandan shillings while primary five to seven costs 50,000 Ugandan shillings and this is very hard to come by. It is very hard for a refugee to get this money to educate their children in the camp.

Achola stated that upon her repatriation she decided to go back to her village, which is roughly one kilometre from Magwi town but she found it deserted and decided to rent a small one bedroom house at the centre of the town.

The house is partitioned into two; one room for herself and her husband and the other for her children.

She added that now that she is back in her country, she will strive to raise enough money to take her children to school, a thing which she says was not earlier possible when she was at the camp in Uganda.

Despite her return to the country, life for her and her family has not been a smooth sail as she expected. With no job and no source of income; for her and her husband, she has been forced to locally brew alcohol and sell at the market as a means of survival.

She said she is just doing the alcohol business to raise enough capital to set up a shop.

Achola called on South Sudanese in the refugee camps to return home.

She further urged humanitarian agencies and other partners to support the returnees and South Sudanese refugees still at the camps in the neighboring countries.

Salfa Ben, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission Cordinator at Magwi County said the number of returnees who previously fled the country due to the civil war that broke out in December 2013 and July 2016 is and are now coming back into the country is on the rise.

“The number of returnees is increasing according to the statistics we receive every two weeks from our numerators at the border points. Since the year 2017 up to July 2019, we have registered 31,023 returnees and 5,200 households,” he said.

“Every month we conduct a Coordination meeting with all the partners operating within the region chaired by myself to assess the situation in regards to returnees and find ways of how we can resettle them,” he said.

He added that he has been following up on how the returnees have been adapting to their new environment and many of them disclose that they have been warmly welcomed by the host community.

His statement was seconded by Omal Peter Bongomin, the Boma Chief of Lobure who said that the host community has warmly welcomed the returnees and the little they have in terms of food and land for the returnees to build their shelter they are sharing.

Chief Omal appealed to humanitarian organizations to support the returnees in terms of food, agriculture tools and seeds and education for their children.

He proceeded to state that Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) in South Sudan have signed a Memorandum of Understanding Agreement with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to monitor and register the returnees at the entry points of Ten Ten check point in Lobone, Pogee check point through Ngom Oromo, Owiny Kibul and Nimule.

Salfa added that they have trained numerators who are presently working at all the border points and incase of any returnee the numerators register them and send the statistics to the RRC and the UNHCR.

He further said the support the returnees are receiving is not adequate enough. “The support is not enough because only 60 percent of the population receives it and 40per cent do not,” he stressed.

It is estimated that over 1.5 million South Sudanese are taking refuge in the neighboring countries of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) due to the conflict that erupted in 2013 and 2016.

Salfa added that they are currently facing challenges such as lack of proper trained teachers, inadequate clean water supply as some of the boreholes drilled years back have broken down and food security and livelihood, whereby only a few partners are the ones supporting the returnees and the host community.

He appealed to humanitarian agencies and other partners to intervene and render aid to the returnees and the host community and called on South Sudanese refugees in the neighboring countries to return home and join hands in nation building.

Magwi County Commissioner, Ochola Bosco Oringa said that his administration and the host community warmly welcome the returnees who had previously fled to the neighboring countries for refuge during the 2013 and 2016 conflict.

He said with the coming of the returnees, more health facilities and education facilities are required to address the health and education gap in the County, whereby there are many students and few well equipped schools and only one Primary Health Care Center (PHCC) serving the entire County.

Ochola reiterated the commitment of his administration to cooperate with humanitarian agencies towards delivery of humanitarian aid services to the vulnerable people in the County.

Lotari Cyprian Peter, the Project Manager at LWF said LWF together with the local authorities and its partners have embarked on re-integration of the returnees who fled the country due to the 2013 and 2016 crisis and have voluntarily come back and service delivery.

He said they were able to set up their Coordination office in Magwi in April 2019 based on the findings of the assessment they conducted in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia between February and March because those are the three countries that are hosting South Sudanese refugees.

“Our assessment here in Magwi was basically to check on the returnees that are coming back from the camps and we have duly noted that there are many people returning to the country as a result of the revitalised peace agreement that was signed,” Lotari said.

He further said more effort is needed to address the current challenges of food security, shelter, sustainability through trainings on farming, education and eradication of fear among the people due to the delayment in implementation of the peace agreement through peace building initiatives by the local government.

A report released in February 2019 by WFP revealed that the number of food insecure people in South Sudan grew from 6.1 million in 2018 to 6.8 million as of January 2019.

Lotari said that the returnees who have come back to the country have been warmly received by the host community and they are now settled in.

“The re-integration process between the returnees and the host community is proceeding on well and we feel that this is a good start,” he added.

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