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Millions of Sudan's Refugees Begin to Return Home

(Soundbite of music)

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams. Coming up on the program, Lee Boyd Malvo is spending his life in prison for his role in the Washington D.C. sniper attacks. This week he's expected to testify against his accomplice and father figure John Allen Muhammad. We'll have that story in a few minutes.

BRAND: But first, millions of Sudanese people displaced by Africa's longest civil war are returning to the country's southern region. The fighting still continues in Darfur, that's in the western part of Sudan. But there's a peace agreement in the south. It gives the people there a greater say in running their affairs and a share of the country's vast oil revenue. Reporter Richard Lough accompanied 300 internally displaced Sudanese on their final leg home.

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RICHARD LOUGH reporting:

As the sun rises over the flood plains of the Nile River, a group of refugees breaks into song. They're from the Dinka tribe, South Sudan's largest tribal group. Their prayers are for an enduring peace in their homeland.

Last year the Sudan government signed an agreement with rebel factions in the south, ending the continent's longest civil war. The fragile peace process is allowing millions of displaced people to return home.

Now these 300 women, children, and elderly men are completing their return to the town of Bor onboard a barge. Clutching a large wooden cross, 60-year-old Michael Garangue(ph) walks up and down the noisy deck as he recalls leaving Bor 20 years earlier.

Mr. MICHAEL GARANGE (Sudanese Refugee): (Through translator) I had no choice to take my family away from Bor. It was where the civil war broke out and within two years I had lost 13 members of my extended family. We fled with our cattle to the border with Congo.

LOUGH: Up to 2 million Sudanese lost their lives during the conflict. The fighting displaced over four million within Sudan, while another half a million fled across the border seeking refuge in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.

With her grandchild strapped to her back, 50-year-old Anna Yard(ph) can barely believe she's within hours of walking on home soil.

Ms. ANNA YARD (Sudanese Refugee): (Through translator) I am so happy today because I am going home. For 18 years I thought about peace and the chance to come back. But there was no way we could return during the fighting. We hope that peace lasts in our land. If it doesn't last we will have to leave again.

LOUGH: On the river bank, cow bells ring out from cattle camp as smoke from piles of burning dung hangs low in the air. South Sudan is one of the poorest places on earth. Many rural tribes live as they did 1000 years ago.

On a recent trip to the region, Jan Egeland, the U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said this makes rebuilding the region even harder. He believes that the international community will fail the Sudanese if cash pledges don't turn into concrete donations.

Under-Secretary General JAN EGELAND (United Nations, Humanitarian Affairs): I just hope and pray that they will now be given the investment from all of us to be able to build a new future on their war-ravaged land, and that there will not be new insecurity. But now we really do not have enough money. We have less than 20 percent of what we need this year for Southern Sudan. So we are at the moment cutting even food rations for the displaced and the war victims.

(Soundbite of Sudanese yelling)

LOUGH: As the barge docks, families line up excitedly to be registered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The U.N.'s appeal for aid to the South has been hampered by what it calls the Darfur effect. The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is soaking up emergency funding.

Yet South Sudan is rich in oil and minerals. Hundreds of millions of dollars from these natural resources are expected to flow into the region. After two decades of war there are no paved roads. There's no running water and no electricity. The town of Bor's infrastructure was reduced to rubble.

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LOUGH: Standing in the crumbling shell at the town's hospital, local surgeon Dr. Benjamin Maleck(ph) explains why it's important that the new government of South Sudan converts those dollars quickly into public services.

Dr. BENJAMIN MALECK (Surgeon, Bor): They hope that quick services should be established, but now there are delays. There is nothing going ahead. Somebody coming out from the war and did not get what he or she expected will be demoralized. If these things are not done, more problems may come out of it. Nobody likes people to go back again into instability of war.

LOUGH: Sudan is the world's most failed state, according to a new study compiled by the U.S.-based think-tank Fund for Peace. The country, the organization suggests, is under more stress than either Iraq or Afghanistan. The challenge now lies in maintaining this most fragile of peace agreements while the region is built up from scratch. For NPR News, I'm Richard Lough.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Lough