21 January 2011 - As early victory celebrations kicked off in Kuajok’s Freedom Square, Ayok Aguek Chol hung back a little, uncertain if he qualified to join in the merry-making.
Results from different referendum centres in and around the Warrab State capital had shown that the vote for Southern Sudan’s secession were in the lead – exactly as Chol wanted – but even as he joined the singing and dancing, he felt like an outsider trying to fit in.
When the 39-year-old jack-of-all-trades made the decision to leave Khartoum, where he had been living for the last three decades, he hoped to arrive in Kuajok in time to register for the vote, but the journey took too long and he missed his chance.
“It is very disappointing. I will always feel that I did not play my part,” he said before the week-long voting period ended on 15 January.
Mr. Chol’s is a typical returnee’s story. He escaped war-torn Turalei, Southern Kordofan State, in 1983, moving to Abeyi and then on to Khartoum. He had to drop out of school, but he found work as a cigarette retailer, a job that was going well until Sharia Law made it illegal.
The recent returnee became a “seasonal” worker – employed on farms when it was cultivation time and working as a construction worker during the dry season. In 2005, he returned from a plantation to find his mother had fallen ill and died.
“I was not part of the armed struggle, but like most people, it took its toll on my family,” he said.
That is the second reason he is reluctant to celebrate – at least not yet. In going to Kuajok, rather than his hometown of Turalei, Mr. Chol was seeking a place with the best opportunities for his family.
“At state level, we were promised that we would have healthcare, sufficient food and land,” he explained. “I also wanted to be in a place where I could be sure that my children would get the high quality education that I never had.”
Currently, Mr. Chol is living in a returnees’ camp, a few metres from Freedom Square. He had to send his three-year-old son to relatives, as they wait for the promised land.
Meanwhile, he and his pregnant wife Akol are crammed with all their property onto less than 10 square metres of a spotlessly clean but open-air corner of the camp. The bag of food the World Food Programme gave them is running out, he said, well before they can expect another. And he sees no light at the end of the tunnel.
“They say we should be patient and everything will be fine,” he said, referring to messages from the state government that are routinely sent to them. “I want to be happy, but right now, it is hard to be.”