Communities Welcome Home Sudan's Internally Displaced People

It was a longed for moment and the waiting for some was over. A crowd of more than 500 people came to cheer the first 120 internally displaced families returning home to Abiemnom in Sudan's Unity State. All along the road leading to the agreed drop-off point for the returnees, locals had gathered to greet the new arrivals.

"It was not possible to see the buses and trucks at the drop-off point, as hundreds of people surrounded them, singing and dancing," recounts IOM's operation officer in Bentiu, Jadranko Bjelica, who escorted the convoy from Khartoum.

The Unity State Commissioner and the local Reception Committee thanked IOM staff and partners for bringing their people home in safety and in dignity. The 522 returnees were immediately taken to the Commissioners Office Building and nearby site where they were given temporary shelter.

More than 2,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) wanting to return to their former communities in south Sudan have been assisted by IOM since it began an organized return operation in early February.

IOM convoys, which are leaving at intervals of between two-three days from the Omdurman el Salaam departure centre on the outskirts of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, are taking the IDPs to South Kordofan and Unity State.

The organized returns, which are a joint effort by the Government of National Unity (GoNU), the Government of South Sudan (GoSS), the UN and IOM, will run until May to allow the returnees a minimum time to get settled before the start of the planting and rainy seasons.

"We are seeing the IDPs gain confidence in the organized return programme. Any information that comes back to Khartoum on how they are being received at the other end will have an impact," says Stefano Tamagnini, head of IOM's operations unit in Sudan.

First priority to returns has been given by the Sudanese government and the UN to communities that have the capacity to absorb large numbers of returnees in terms of safety, infrastructure, health and educational facilities as well as food and water resources.

Positive reports of a welcoming reception in home communities are reassuring those internally displaced in Sudan's northern Khartoum state wanting to return. Once they are assisted back to home counties, local authorities formed into Reception Committees take over. It is largely on their performance and attitude that the overall success of the programme depends.

And the great welcome returnees are receiving in Unity State is encouraging those displaced from this region to go home. At times, enthusiasm spills over.

When they hear that an IOM convoy is leaving for a destination near to their home village, some IDPs in Khartoum try to jump the queue by showing up with their belongings at the gates of the IOM departure centre.

"Unfortunately, we can't take them. Only those who have registered to go can do so to ensure these returns are well organized and safe. We want to provide assistance to as many people as we can, and we will try our best in the time we have before the rainy season starts," says Alex Coissac, IOM coordinator for the North of Sudan.

Registrations for voluntary returns have surged. So far, more than 100,000 IDP households have signed up at IOM registration centres that are run in collaboration with the Fellowship for African Relief (FAR) in the Khartoum area.

Although the UN and IOM are not actively promoting return, the pressure to assist the population of southerners still displaced as a result of the two-decade-long civil war is great. About four million people are displaced in the country due to the conflict in the south. More than two million IDPs live in camps and squatter areas in the greater Khartoum area.

Despite very low development indicators and very basic infrastructure, IDPs have been embarking on the long journey south spontaneously for the past two years. Since the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement in early 2005, an estimated one million people have already returned unassisted after a long and often hazardous journey leaving many thousands stranded each year en route.

The joint return programme from Khartoum state aims at assisting a total of 150,000 persons in the coming months. The first 35,000 are to be transported by IOM, with the remaining 115,000 to be assisted by the government with IOM technical assistance.

Voluntary returnees on organized convoys receive assistance at various levels, starting with information on the return areas, registration, fit-for-travel medical check ups, food and non-food material assistance, shelter on the way, and free transportation, escorted by IOM medical and operational staff.