But thousands of others have been unable or unwilling to reclaim their traditional homes. Many are stuck at transit sites across South Sudan — train stations, ports and temporary camps — with limited access to food and medical care. The situation is especially tenuous for women like Akol who led their families back south.
The upcoming rainy season will make the situation worse, officials say, creating a potential humanitarian crisis as the world’s newest nation faces a series of challenges. Food shortages have become widespread, and ethnic conflict has flared in recent months. And the government’s decision in January to shut down oil production — which accounts for 98 percent of its revenue — following a feud with Sudan over transit fees will make confronting these issues even more difficult.
Meanwhile, renewed tension and fighting along the border between Sudan and South Sudan have brought new risks to potential returnees seeking to make the journey back to the south.
But the hardships haven’t dampened Akol’s eagerness to begin building a new life in this new country.
“Even if I stay in the bush or wherever, I’m glad to be back home,” she said.
Akol was one of the millions of southerners caught up in the war. She fled north, where she met her husband, another displaced southerner, and started a family. Their oldest child, Martha Chol, said she grew up listening to her parents vow that they would move back to the south.
That day came in December, five months after South Sudan celebrated its independence. A trip by barge and bus ended at the railway hangar in Wau, a bustling town along the Jur River. Without her husband, who stayed behind waiting for some money he was owed, Akol said she is unsure how to claim land in his family’s traditional area.
Hers has been a common problem for many of the women returning to the south, according to Gregory Norton, the program director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. Though the transitional constitution allows women to own land, traditional customs of male-only land ownership dominate in some areas. Akol can appeal to local officials or higher authorities in Juba, the capital, but she said she can’t afford to leave her children and is not convinced that she would be successful if she tried.
Other returnees, used to life in urban areas in the north with consistent access to water, markets and schools, have refused to leave the transit sites for their traditional — and often undeveloped — villages.
“They basically said, ‘There’s nothing in my village; why would I go?’ ” said Maureen Murphy, an officer with the American Refugee Committee. Instead, they are hoping that the government will find them a place near a city, where they can start businesses instead of farms.
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