Tens of thousands of internally displaced Sudanese have been heading back to their southern roots with little more than a few household items and the shirts on their backs.
Initially, they struggled to return from the north ahead of the country's upcoming self-determination referenda on their own, assisted only by their families or individual states.
But the returnees are now being assisted by the Government of Southern Sudan, which launched a massive return programme by air, land and river at the end of November. An estimated 2,000 returnees were scheduled to move to the three Equatoria states (Central, Western and Eastern) by air, 23,000 by barge and others by road as In Sudan went to print.
"We are receiving two flights every day, each carrying at least 100 IDPs," said Satimon Ladu, Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC) Secretary for Juba County. "So far, 703 individuals have been transported by air ... while several others are moving by barge."
Upon arrival in Juba, IDPs are taken to a way station where they are given food and are registered as well as medically examined before traveling to their final destinations.
In addition to the Equatorias, an estimated 42,000 returnees planned to return to Unity State and another 80,000 to Abyei, noted Mary Abiong Louis, director general for return, resettlement, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction (5Rs) in the ministry of humanitarian affairs and disaster management.
By 5 December, more than 19,500 individuals (2,320 families) had returned to Unity State, according to a joint assessment carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP), SSRRC and several other UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
As of 23 November, the WFP had provided 15-day rations for 5,797 transit returnees in the Unity capital of Bentiu, handing out about 61 metric tons of mixed food items.
The transit returnees were being hosted in schools, as they were unable to reach their home counties due to bad roads. The state government was working on the roads so that they could move on as quickly as possible.
Returnees will continue to be assisted by the GoSS, WFP and International Organization for Migration, according to the 5Rs director general.
"We have ... a budget of 30 million Sudanese pounds to transport the IDPs from the north," said Ms. Abiong. "The ministry target is to repatriate 1.5 million IDPs from Khartoum, but we are going to start with 600,000 and if there are funds we will take another 600,000."
SSRRRC Deputy Director for Central Equatoria State Michael Lado said he was pleased that returnees unable to afford the trip were now returning home, but pointed to coming challenges.
"As our people are massively returning to the south, we are going to face problems accommodating them, not only in terms of housing but in other sectors like education, health, water and employment," the deputy director said.
Returnees themselves, who had to abandon employment in the north, are concerned about living and finding work in a now unfamiliar environment.
"It is not going to be easy to get another job quickly here," said Juba returnee Mazinga Yona Alebe, who had been working as a driver at the University of Juba in Khartoum for 11 years.
Focusing only on returning, others are prepared to tackle any obstacle. "No matter how difficult it is, I must go to my ancestral land in Aweil, Northern Bahr El-Ghazal State, so that I can start a new life," said 41-year-old Aluel Kuol, also now in Juba, who had lived in Khartoum for 22 years.
The SSRRC has requested humanitarian actors at the Juba and field level to provide support for returnees as well as assist with verifying, registering and tracking them.
The Logistics Cluster (a group of NGOs and UN agencies working together in logistics, led by WFP) has been working to map all organizations' logistics capacity across the region.
Ahead of the January referendum and in preparation for a potential influx of returnees, the WFP is positioning some 76,000 metric tons of food in strategic locations across Southern Sudan. This includes WFP planned assistance for some 500,000 returnees with up to three-month food rations.
Border states – Upper Nile, Unity, Warrap, and Northern and Western Bahr El-Ghazal -- are being considered priorities for food deliveries and will have some50,000metric tons of food positioned by mid-December.