Hidden, harassed, scared they wait to be hauled to a South Sudan ‘homeland’

South Sudanese 'returnees' have gathered en mass at Kosti - there is already 22,

South Sudanese 'returnees' have gathered en mass at Kosti - there is already 22,000 waiting to head 'home' and more are expected. People are hungry, thirsty and frustrated

The amassed South Sudan ‘returnees’ call this camp ‘Tarowa’, the place with many winds, but a compliment it is not. Today’s prevailing breeze propels the waft of diarrhea from the nearby trees across the impromptu village with a vengeance. No one is used to the smell.

Tarowa is on the outskirts of the Sudanese town of Kosti, strategic because it is one of the last big towns (in the north) on the Nile and crucial because it is the staging point for the barges tasked with the moving South Sudanese people to their official new homeland.

Some are returning to Juba wondering how the world’s newest capital city has changed since they left. Others are heading home to a place they’ve never been before. Many grew up on the streets of Khartoum in the north.

Even before the partition in early July, southerners, with whatever personal affects they could drag with them, knew this place was their best option to get home. Some returnees have been here for three months already.

And the population of the New Port of Kosti, as it is officially known, grows every day.

There is a refugee-camp aura to the settlement: the ramshackle houses, made of beds, sticks and worn tarpaulins, look like they’re here to stay. Plastic bags carpet the dusty ground and hang in the trees like hideous and long-forgotten Christmas decorations.

Robert, who learned his impeccable English in a Catholic missionary school, is afraid of seasonal downpours, due to start in the coming weeks. Stagnant water could be the beginning of the end for many of the people already struggling here.

He is equally afraid of the area’s native inhabitants, snakes and scorpions galore, which nest in the low lying bushes. People have already been bitten.

Markets have sprung up on the main ‘road’ – a dusty track at best. Afro-beats pumping from small-wardrobe-sized speakers compete with the drone of petrol-powered generators used to run them.

Stalls selling phone cards and electricity adaptors outnumber those selling food.

Emmanuel (with hat on) and his family and friends outside his makeshift cinema. A makeshift cinema – consisting of a large old TV and an assortment of rebirthed stools housed under a patchwork of tarpaulins – replays the inaugural South Sudan flag raising ceremony over and over again.

Emmanuel, 25, runs the show and he also sells bread, sourced from Kosti town, at less than a Sudanese pound for a bag.

The cinema also features Jean Claude Van Damme films, but WWE wrestling is the real draw card, particularly Friday Night Smackdown.

At night Emmanuel and 14 family members sleep in the cinema, only a few metres across.

He says people here are hungry and thirsty, and diarrhea is an epidemic. Another gust of wind confirms the last point.

The barge ride which the returnees all covert so fiercely will take at least 15 days, against the flooding Nile current, swollen by the rainy season up river.

The barges are owned by a company that used to run trips commercially, but they are now commandeered for returnees; free, when a space eventually comes up.

The only other realistic way to make the monumental trip south is a flight from Khartoum to the new southern capital of Juba; at several hundred US dollars one way, not an option for anyone here. Their hard-won possessions are also not to be left behind.

A barge will accommodate around 1,000 people and their belongings (at a squeeze), but the schedule remains contentious.

One barge company official says they run once a week. Many returnees reckon there hasn’t been one for at least a month. An aid worker says defensively that he does not know when they run – and his organisation has nothing to do with the schedule!

He runs a sub-camp preparing returnees for the voyage, documenting names, executing health checks and ensuring some kind of order is maintained.

Logos from NGOs and charities are attached to all kinds of vantage points: UN, UNESCO, IOM and a handful of others are thatched amongst the camp’s construction.

An NGO worker says the settlement has infrastructure for 500 people, but he estimates around 22,000 people are camped at the New Port (other estimates from company officials and returnees range from 10,000 to 18,000 people).

He says the NGOs are here to provide a minimum standard of living for those assembled.

He adds that the Sudanese government doesn’t want to develop the camp further because it would legitimise it politically – and risk making it permanent.

The government certainly does its best to hide the goings-on at Tarowa. A heavy police and army presence controls every movement in and around the camp (we were intimidated and had some photos deleted – see upcoming blog). Yet Kosti is not in the disputed north-south border region.

On the day of Sudan’s partition, several returnees were arrested for “making too much noise”, according to Robert – even though this shanty town is kilometres from the nearest settlement. “The police still arrest people for no reason and sometimes put the people in jail for two days,” he says.

The prevailing thought among the aid workers and NGOs here is that the barges are infrequent because South Sudan doesn’t yet have the infrastructure and means to house the returnees – and to send them down river any faster would create a humanitarian disaster. There is also the question of just what resources are being allocated to the problem; a question leveled at both the north and south governments.

There is nine months left for South Sudanese to evacuate the north but judging by the faces on the streets of Khartoum there is a lot more humanity yet to gather at Tarowa.

Meanwhile the people wait. They play cards, they sit around and they wait. The frustration, the boredom, the hunger grows hourly – and the people still trickle in.

When will I get my turn, they ask. 

Steve Madgwick