17 November 2010 – Oil-rich Unity State is one of four southern states expecting to absorb the bulk of internally displaced Southern Sudanese heading home ahead of the January 2011 referendum.
Nearly 8,000 returnees had arrived in the state capital of Bentiu by last week, but their homecoming in many instances has been bittersweet.
Three of the city's schools are playing host to over 2,700 residents of Abiemnhom, Mayom and Panyinjar counties that have been cut off from the rest of Unity State by impassable roads. Students who normally attend classes in those schools have been forced to pursue their studies elsewhere.
The returnees find themselves stranded in an unfamiliar setting that offers little in the way of sustenance or job prospects.
"The children need milk and the old people need food," said Yasin Gadoor, who trekked from Khartoum to Bentiu with his own family and the children of a brother who recently passed away. "I have no job, and the fate of the whole family of 27 individuals now is at stake."
The Unity State government hopes to reopen the road linking Bentiu to Mayom and Abiemnhom counties in the coming days and allow the returnees to resume their journey.
"Our plan was that all would come and proceed to their own counties, and the county commissioners would then resettle their respective returnees," said Unity State Minister of Information and Communication Gideon Gatpan Thoar.
He said that 3,000 plots in Bentiu had been designated for occupation by returnees who changed their minds and decided to settle down in the state capital.
UN humanitarian aid agencies have been issuing a month's worth of food and other necessities to returnees who find themselves stuck in Bentiu for the time being. Another two months of rations will be made available to them when they reach their home counties to encourage returnees to travel further than the state capital.
The difficult living conditions encountered by many of the returnees have not broken their spirit. In their view, a brighter future beckons them after years of enduring poverty and hardship as internally displaced persons in North Sudan.
"Here in South Sudan there is enough rain and plenty of fertile land for cultivation," said Francis Kuo Lual, who formerly worked in Khartoum as an electrician. "It is good for the children to come back to South Sudan so that they learn their own traditions, culture and customs."