Millions of exiles head to southern Sudan for referendum

 A referendum on the independence of South Sudan is set for January 9. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese, who live in exile in the north of the country, have already taken to the road to get back to their homeland.  


Riverboats on the Nile transport exiles returning to South Sudan. Photo: Tim Freccia for the NGO ENOUGH Project


A referendum on the independence of South Sudan is set for January 9. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese, who live in exile in the north of the country, have already taken to the road to return to their hometowns.


According to the UN, two and a half million people will return to South Sudan between now and January 9, the day the population will vote for or against the partition of Sudan into two separate states. This referendum is the cornerstone of the peace agreements signed in 2005 to end more than two decades of bloody civil war between the Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south. In October the government  of South Sudan, a semi-autonomous region consisting of 10 states, launched a campaign of accelerated repatriation of its exiled citizens in order to ensure their return in time for the referendum.


Posted on the site Midwife on a Mission.


Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, currently visiting the south of the country, has reaffirmed his willingness to respect the result of the vote, but still calls for national unity. During the past few months, military forces have been deployed on both sides of the border between the north and the south, a sign of tension in the run-up to the election. Last year the South Sudanese Army accused northern military forces of carrying out a raid against one of its military bases. Furthermore, on Tuesday a large-scale  security operation was launched in Juba, the South’s main town, where armed soldiers are patrolling the streets.


Most projections show voters strongly in the favour of independence.

"They should be looked after here for three months.... Beyond this deadline, they will have to fend for themselves"

Stephanie Williams has been a midwife in Tonj (South Sudan) for the past 6 months. She runs the blog Midwife on a Mission


Buses headed for Rumbeck (a town 5 hours south of Tonj) passed through last week. It was quite the sight to see; buses lined the main square for blocks, loaded down with baskets and bundles.


Tonj is expecting 700 internally displaced people (IDPs) in the next few days. They are already en route. That’s 700 mouths to feed and bodies to bed. The town leaders have been preparing schools and fixing outdated wells. They have begun discussing latrines and water rights in anticipation of the chaos. Much has to be sorted before they arrive.


I’m told they will be supported and housed for 3 months by the Southern Sudanese Government. During that time, they will be required to reconnect with relatives and/or find lodging and land. Then they are on their own.


Change is coming and with it potential-- Potential laced with a hint of fear and a lot of the unknown. All that we hope is that president Al-Bashir honours his promise to respect the choice of the southern Sudanese population. But certain questions remain and need to be addressed, particularly those concerning the oil resources of the south."

"They are also fleeing because they do not want to find themselves trapped in the north and become the target of reprisals"

Tim Freccia is a photograhper for the NGO ENOUGH Project. He has travelled with the some of the Sudanese who are returning to the south. All of his photos are posted on the Flickr page of the NGO.


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.