- Posted February 24, 2011 by
Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Sudan
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Your photos from 'Inside Africa'
Homecoming: Return to south Sudan after decades of fleeing
Today, I witnessed a homecoming. There was laughter, and welcome arms. Tears and a thankful glance up to the sky, arms raised.
This was not in a busy airport terminal or at a crowded train station.
It was along the side of the road at a dusty intersection in Wanjok, south Sudan.
A large bus barreled into town, clouds of smoky dust swirling around it. Silhouettes of people crowded inside appeared under the unforgiving Sudanese sun, high above. Jerry cans, suitcases and bed frames shook and teetered on top as the bus came to a squeaky halt. The engine was killed and there was clapping, laughter. “This bus has just come from Khartoum. In it carries returnees- some who have been gone for more than a decade,” said Peter, my translator. “You are very lucky to witness this today.”
I watched Bak Geng jump out. He was the first to get off. He excitedly ran to greet a young teenage boy. They began a series of handshakes, the patting of chests, back and forth, back and forth, in the typical Sudanese hello between friends. They embraced for several seconds before Bak let go and looked around, and broke into a smile. Tears gathered in his eyes. A sense of release visibly moved over his body.
“It’s been 15 years since I have been here, in my homeland. I thought I’d never see this day,” he says, voice quivering, as he looks away.
I asked him how he felt. A big smile broke out. “Oh yes, so happy,” he laughs. “Life in Khartoum was very hard, very hard. There was much work, no rest there. But we had to leave our village when the war came, our cows and property were taken. Everything we owned was looted. I left on foot. Believe me when I say I saw many people die.”
A crowd began to form as he talked, and many others nodded their heads and began to interject their own experiences of suffering along the journey. “It was so challenging..” one yelled. Another piped up: “You can’t believe the things we have seen.” Everyone was eager to share of their experiences... it was safe now to do so.
“We were feeding off the leaves. Others died of hunger. I have seen many dead bodies with my eyes, I care to not remember their shapes on the ground. Only a few of us managed to get there,” Bak continues.
“When the results of the referendum were announced last month, I knew in my heart I would be home soon. I wanted to believe it to be true. They told us that we would get back home, but vehicles to help us were hard to find. We all used our own money to get here, no one knows we have left.” I was moved by the courage they found to make this long journey in secret unison.
His wife and children come alongside of them, tired after the journey which I found out from several on the bus took 7 days. There were sicknesses along the way, briberies and trading that had to be given in order for it to be allowed to continue to pass.
Before they moved the truck to unload the items, I asked if I could take a homecoming picture of everyone in front of the bus (first picture here). They gathered quickly, happy to have the moment documented. Bak and his family also wanted their own photo taken (pictured second here), their first picture as a family in the south.
“This is the start of many new memories together,” he said to his wife before the photo was snapped.
This bus was filled with people who have been in Khartoum for decades- some who were born there and have relied on the memories of their parents to understand their place of origin, and others who were old enough to remember the horrors they left behind. One couple had been there for 31 years. He also had tears in his eyes.
The bus moves to unload the families and their belongings under a tree. Many will stay and settle here, their beds, trunks, cooking supplies and furniture lay strewn about in piles until they can begin to build a shelter. Hundreds of others have already done this same thing farther along in the camp, many have been here for weeks already.
Samaritan’s Purse has plans to dig 4 boreholes here to meet the demands for water as more and more returnees come home. They’ve also conducted a distribution to over 5,000 people with mosquito nets, blankets, tarps, soap and jerry cans. The population will continue to need assistance as they get their feet under them to start a new life, once again.
The Sudanese are courageous and long-suffering. They know this return will not be easy; water is scarce, there is little work and food is hard to come by. But with each person I talked to today, the feeling was increasingly mutual: they are overjoyed to be back in their homeland, regardless of how difficult it will be. "This is a good thing for us to be here," said Bak.
Around us children worked to help their parents set up camp, lighting fires for their stoves, putting sheets on mattresses set up out in the open air, and pulling clean clothes out of weathered suitcases. Life, settling in and starting over (as seen in this video). “We are witnessing a very critical point in Sudan’s history,” Peter said to me.
Indeed we are.