Counting the days, south Sudanese want to go home

MANDELA CAMP, Sudan Wed Jul 6, 2011 7:06am EDT

A Sudanese from the south who was born in the north, plays near a shelter at Mandela camp in the outskirts of Khartoum July 4, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

A Sudanese from the south who was born in the north, plays near a shelter at Mandela camp in the outskirts of Khartoum July 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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MANDELA CAMP, Sudan (Reuters) - Watching men loading a truck with bed frames, wardrobes and chairs in this slum near Khartoum, Nal Wak cannot wait to head home to South Sudan as it breaks away to form a new nation.

"This is not our country here. Our country is there (in the south). We're very poor here and have nothing so we're going home," the young woman said, surrounded by children in dirty clothes on the outskirts of Sudan's northern capital.

"We have no jobs here, we're so poor," she said.

Wak came here decades ago fleeing the civil war between north and south that ended with a peace deal in 2005. In a January referendum, part of the agreement, southerners decided to break away -- a separation that is due to take place on Saturday.

Hundreds of thousands of expatriate southerners have already left for the south. Tens of thousands more are still hoping to make the journey before independence day on Saturday and have started moving furniture out of their houses made of wood, mud or corrugated iron into a central square in the camp.

Many in the slum -- one of several such camps on the outskirts of Khartoum -- hope to escape poverty in the south after surviving as day laborers and living off aid handouts. Thousands of southerners who worked in the Khartoum government, public services, police and army have also received severance notices and will have to move on to find new work.

"I don't have a job anymore. I'm just signing off the last papers with the government," said William Aguor, who worked for a northern ministry.

Others worry they will no longer be welcome after southern independence, which many in the north see as mistake or humiliation. The north is mainly Muslim, while most southerners follow Christian or traditional beliefs.

"We fear there could be violence again and clashes," said Diar Mayom Aniek, a young man.

After southern rebel hero John Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005, southerners rioted in Khartoum, triggering days of street fights that killed hundreds.

"I fear what happened after John Garang's death can happen again," said Aniek. "I am returning because the situation in the south is better than here. Much better. We have lived here for more than 30 years and there is nothing good."

Sudan President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who will lead just the north after the split, said in December the north would adopt an Islamic constitution if the south opted for independence. He also later said southerners had to decide whether to get northern or southern citizenship.

"They now find themselves in a situation where they have absolutely no assurances about their future status in Sudan. There are contradictory statements about their future treatment," Dominik Bartsch of the UNHCR told reporters on Tuesday in Geneva.

Life may be poor in Mandela Camp but it is also less rigid than in Khartoum, where Islamic law is strictly applied. In the slum most women walk around unveiled, while young men enjoy a shisha pipe in a hut, a luxury banned in Khartoum.

"It's better to go home," said 25-year old Makol, who plans to return to the south's Unity state 20 years after arriving in Khartoum.

DIFFICULT WAY

The journey will be difficult and dangerous -- fighting along several parts of the 2,000 km (1,200 miles) long north/south border has blocked roads.

Last month, trouble flared in the northern state of Southern Kordofan where the army is fighting armed groups allied with the south.

"It will have a big impact for sure," said Claire Bolt, a project development and coordination officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Khartoum.

So far, around 300,000 southerners have left since October by train, Nile barge or road, according to the IOM, which is advising both governments. Up to 1.8 million southerners are still in the north, according to estimates by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

"The trip will be dangerous but we will still go," Makol said.

Around 17,000 are stranded in Khartoum, having left their homes in November after both governments told them to wait for transport that never materialized, according to UNCHR.

About three trains a month now leave the north packed with southerners but experts say the state program has been facing funding gaps and more transport is needed

Many want to bring their own furniture to help them get settled easily or to sell upon arrival, said Bolt.

Around 16,000 southerners have been stranded in the northern city of Kosti, arriving there by rail and waiting for Nile barges to take them further south, according to UNCHR figures.

"Conditions are very, very difficult, this site was conceived originally for 2,000. Obviously we have grave concerns about the sanitation situation because the rains will start very soon," UNHCR's Bartsch said.

"The government didn't help us with the transport. We have to pay everything from our own money," said Pita Akoi, one of the community leaders in the camp.

"We don't get any help," he said, sitting with fellow southerners in the shade of a hut.

A woman who gave her name as Marsa said her family and friends had to organize their own truck to transport furniture.

"The government did nothing for us. We rent this car with our money. If you have big luggage you have to pay. We have paid for that from our money," she said.

Diar Aniek hopes the new Republic of South Sudan will prosper economically as most of the African country's oil will come from there.

"There is oil ... I am optimist. We can find jobs there. Here we have nothing," he said.

But life in the south will not be easy. The south will have to pay the north to use its oil facilities and only port to sell the oil which makes up 98 percent of state revenues.

Decades of war left the south ravaged and underdeveloped with few roads or other infrastructure. Violence in the south, since the independence vote in January, has left more than 1,800 dead, according to the United Nations.

But many in the slum are undeterred.

"We're sitting here doing nothing. We don't have jobs," said Makol.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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