A week and a half ago I journeyed part of the way with the exiles that were leaving the north for the south. In the runup to the referendum, the government of South Sundan has made a massive effort to repatriate 2.5 million targeted Southerners. It's an opportunity that all those who could not afford to pay for the journey to back to the south should seize. At the moment, the South Sudanese government are paying for journeys by bus and by boat.
Furthermore, southern Sudanese know that if the south's independence is proclaimed, they could find themselves stuck in the north and become the target of reprisals by those who want to the country to remain united. [According to a UN report
, the most vulnerable Sudanese are those who live along the border, along with the 800,000 South Sudanese who live close to the capital, Khartoum.]
I spent some time waiting for the riverboats of exiles along several parts of the River Nile. I had been travelling in a small boat which capsized at one point. My colleague and I found ourselves in crocodile-infested waters and had to swim furiously. Eventually, we were picked up by another boat in convoy with two others. Some of the passengers on board had been travelling for more than a week. When I got on, there were about 650 people. And although the conditions were very bad, especially the lack of food and water, people were very happy to go back to their homeland. All of them wanted to participate in the vote.
“There were 850 living in the port with their few possessions waiting to be transported to their villages.”
I left them at the town of Bor. When I returned a week later, most of the travellers had reached their home villages, but some families remained in the World Food Programme's camp. In the meantime, 850 more exiles had arrived. They were lying in the port with their few possessions waiting to be transported to their villages.
Today I’m in Juba and the situation seems calm for now. If independence is voted, there is sure to be a big celebration here. But at the border between the south and the north, the situation is very tense, particularly in the region of Abyei
. [In this region of South Sudan, certain tribes are in favour of independence, others are opposed.] There is great potential for clashes, no matter what the outcome of the referendum is."
A soldier from the SPLA, (Sudan People's Liberation Army) armed rebel group which defends the independence of South Sudan, rests at the back of the river boat.