Why Don't You Take Us Back Home? The Plight of the Internally Displaced in Sudan

“Why don’t you take us back home?”

These are the first words whispered by Thiang Adak, a gaunt and exhausted widow and mother of eight as she reaches an IOM information centre in El Salaam, a windswept and dusty camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) which sprawls for miles across the grey Nile River from Khartoum.

Thiang is one of the estimated one million IDPs who have settled in and around Khartoum in four official camps and numerous squalid squatter areas, which dot the flat and barren landscape. El Salaam camp alone shelters an estimated 100,000 persons, almost all displaced from southern Sudan.

Thiang and her family are Dinkas from the Melusal tribe. They fled the insecurity in the garrison town of Aweil in North Bahr El-Ghazal in 1992 and travelled by train and by road to Khartoum, where they struggled to survive while waiting for better days to come.

But two years ago, more hardship struck as Thiang’s husband Thaw died because the family couldn’t afford to pay for medical treatment. “He had fever and bloody diarrhoea for a week,” recalls Thiang. “And in the end he just wasted way.”

Since her husband’s death, Thiang and her children have been struggling to survive. Her two eldest daughters have now married and have settled in Khartoum. But most days, her other six children have to walk for hours to forage for food around markets in downtown Omdurman.

“Sometimes, I find work cleaning houses and washing clothes in Khartoum,” says Thiang. “But this is not enough to feed us all.” 

Thiang and her six children live in a shack made of flattened cardboard boxes and plastic bags stitched together and stretched over wooden poles. The hovel is divided into two cramped areas, each with an old bedstead and a chair, the only evidence that once, life was slightly better for the family.

Like many other IDPs from the south, Thiang is a Christian. She wears a small cross, which hangs from her shrivelled neck on a piece of string. Above one of the beds, a faded religious print is pinned on a piece of cardboard. 

“God willing, we will soon be able to go back to Aweil,” says Thiang, who visits one of the three IOM centres in el Salaam on a regular basis, on the lookout for any information which could help her return home.

To date, twelve information centres have been established by IOM in the greater Khartoum region to provide would-be returnees with up-to-date information on conditions in areas of return and distribute flyers on a variety of health issues, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and guinea worm and sanitation, and to warn people of the threat posed by unexploded bombs and landmines.

Twenty-two year old Maria Ken, a mother of three, is also from the North Bahr El-Ghazal town of Aweil. But she and her husband would rather visit Aweil before deciding if and when they want to return home.

“Organizing go-and-see visits for community representatives is crucial to help IDPs decide whether they want to return home or not,” explains Mario Tavolaj, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Sudan.

After a pilot phase in the town of Kosti, in the White Nile province, IOM recently organized several go-and-see visits to the Nuba region of South Kordofan for community representatives who in turn informed IDPs on the conditions in the areas of return.

Already, some small scale returns to the south are taking place. James Juna’s wife and two children recently returned to Juba after saving enough money to pay for the trip. “I want to go back as soon as possible,” says James who earns a meagre living working at a local bus stop with a whistle around his neck as his only tool. He earns on average 1,000 Sudanese Dinar, around US$ 4 per week and hopes to be able to afford the return journey home before the start of the rainy season, expected in late April.

“Most IDPs have relied on international assistance for years now,” says IOM’s Stefano Tamagnini. “And they will only return in numbers once they are sure that they will receive comprehensive return and reintegration assistance.”

As part of its return and reintegration programme in 2006, IOM has appealed for US$ 24 million and has to date received US$ 7,356,202 from Denmark, the Common Humanitarian Fund and the Netherlands.