In Sudanese tent city, South Sudan remains a promised land
For hundreds of people struggling to survive in a tent city on the outskirts of Khartoum, their South Sudan homeland remains a promised land despite weeks of deadly warfare.
The violence has killed thousands, destroyed entire towns and displaced more than 850,000 but it did not shake the South Sudanese residents of Dar Al-Salaam camp from their dreams of returning home.
“We are suffering,” says one of the roughly 1,700 southerners at the camp outside Jebel Aulia town about 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Sudanese capital.
The displaced say they have lived there for two years, with little chance of work and virtually no help from aid groups.
Millions of southerners fled north during a 22-year civil war which ended in a 2005 peace deal that paved the way for South Sudan's separation in July 2011 following a referendum.
By the end of 2013 about 1.8 million southerners had returned South by various means.
Almost 20,000 others who lack the money to travel themselves have kept up a long vigil waiting for transport at about 40 Khartoum-area camps like Dar Al-Salaam.
“We are here to go,” says another camp resident. “We are ready.”
Many hail from South Sudan's Bahr El Ghazal region which, they say, has remained untouched by the fighting that began on December 15 between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel troops and militia who back his sacked vice-president Riek Machar.
While the war has seen ethnic violence and revenge attacks between Kiir's Dinka people and Machar's Nuer, the various tribes in Dar Al-Salaam (land of peace) live in harmony, residents say.
Harsh living conditions
They are united in their longing to go home — and in the daily misery they share.
“We need pit latrines,” says a teacher.
He earns a meagre income from the few parents able to pay for their children to attend a school run by the camp's Catholic church.
Southerners say they are regarded by authorities as foreigners, restricting their access to employment and services, despite an agreement between Sudan and South Sudan guaranteeing freedom of movement, residence and economic activity for nationals of both countries.
The teacher said only two toilets remain after the others collapsed during heavy rains.
In the yard of the metal-roofed church, he points to a donated pump which is also broken and no longer supplying water.
Camp residents can buy water delivered by donkeys which pull metal tanks among the tents made from hessian sacks stitched tightly around pieces of wood and personal belongings.
The tents stand closely together and give the camp a more orderly appearance than other more ramshackle South Sudanese squatter settlements.
A small patch of greenery, a garden in the desert, grows in front of one shelter.
People have died here, residents say. They lack medicine and one of the few sources of income is from the women's sale of illegal home-brewed alcohol.
An aid worker, who asked not to be named, said Sudan's government “has not wanted or allowed regular assistance to be made available” to areas like Dar Al-Salaam.
The camps are a sensitive issue for authorities, and for that reason residents and the aid worker cannot be identified.
Funds ran out
Almost every single one of the southerners surveyed at Khartoum-area camps by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) last September wanted to go home.
At least there, they will have land to farm and feed themselves, a camp resident said.
In December IOM used its own funds to support the safe return of 700 South Sudanese who travelled in a bus and truck convoy to Northern Bahr El Ghazal from Khartoum's Haj Yousef district.
IOM Sudan mission chief Mario Lito Malanca said he remains ready to help but “I cannot use more of my funding” for additional convoys.
He said donor funds have not been made available, “despite people living in bad conditions” and the readiness of both Sudan and South Sudan to back repatriation.
While the people of Dar Al-Salaam insist on going South, thousands of others have fled north to escape the war.
IOM and Sudan's Humanitarian Aid Commission registered more than 4,100 South Sudanese, Sudanese and nomads who crossed the border from the South, where a 10-day old “ceasefire” has eased but not ended the fighting.
The unnamed aid worker said a large-scale return of people from areas like Dar Al-Salaam cannot be envisaged under the present situation in South Sudan.
“We pray that things will get better,” another community worker said.