Monday, January 17, 2022

Sudan Tribune

Plural news and views on Sudan

The refugees who can never go home

By Bruce Leimsidor, International Herald Tribune

FUGNIDO, Ethiopia, Nov. 21, 2003 — It seemed a bit too quiet when our UN jeep rolled into Fugnido one recent morning. The town, with its few dozen mud-spattered cinderblock shops, round straw huts and rutted streets, should have been bustling with activity at this hour. But only a few days before, a feud between rival tribes in the sprawling camp for Sudanese refugees nearby had resulted in a bus hijacking. Over 20 refugees were missing and presumed dead. Then a grenade had been thrown into a truck carrying refugees, with more fatalities.

People were staying in their huts or going out quietly to work in the fields, avoiding the town. The positive developments for peace in the 20-year Sudanese conflict that were being discussed at distant conference tables had little resonance here.

The progress in the peace negotiations served only to increase our sense of urgency. We were there as consultants to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to help determine which of the Sudanese refugees were in particular danger or had little hope of ever returning home safely. Of the some 60,000 Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia, at least 5,000 won’t be able to return home safely in the foreseeable future. They are victims of tribal hatreds and political strife that will not be resolved by a peace between north and south Sudan. Resettlement abroad is their only hope.

Yet with peace on the horizon, Ethiopia and other host countries were already thinking of sending the refugees back home. The United Nations will urge that these repatriations be voluntary, but Ethiopia, which has long used the refugees as pawns, knows it can disregard UN guidelines with impunity. It has done so before.

In Fugnido, preoccupation with day-to-day survival made it difficult for the refugees even to imagine peace. The violence, deriving in large part from antagonisms that long predate the Sudanese civil war, is likely to persist whatever the developments in the larger conflict. And now the hopes for peace have further decreased the chances for any investment in camp security.

Our jeep rumbled through the outskirts of the town and into open country. Within a few minutes we were in the refugee camp.

No gates, no guards, no checks. Arms and agitators could enter the camp at will. The SPLA, the major South Sudanese rebel organization, infiltrated the camp unencumbered to assassinate political enemies and kidnap men and even young boys.

When we met with the leaders of the tribal groups, they described a desperate situation. At one of the meetings, we noticed a thin, nervous man with sad, frightened eyes. His situation is typical of those who live in danger in the camp and have no hope of returning safely to Sudan.

Abraham had been a teacher in Pibor, a south Sudanese provincial capital. When the town came under Sudanese government control, he was arrested and charged with being an agent of the SPLA. He escaped to a town under SPLA control, but was eventually arrested there for resisting the rebels’ militarist policies. He escaped again, and this time made his way with his family to Fugnido.

Abraham is safer in Fugnido than he was in Sudan, but not by much. Shortly after he arrived, the SPLA came to bring him back to Sudan by force. Warned by neighbors, Abraham and his family hid in the bush for three days. They have now been living in fear in a refugee camp supposedly under the protection of the Ethiopian government and the UNHCR for over two years. The Ethiopian authorities, informally allied with the SPLA, seldom intervene with the rebels. UNHCR staff responsible for refugee protection come to Fugnido only a few days each month. Abraham cannot depend on their protection and never leaves his hut alone.

We thought that Abraham and the other refugees we managed to see in Fugnido would soon be resettled. But shortly after our mission, a shooting spree among rival tribes left more than 40 refugees dead. Fugnido was declared a danger zone. Further identification of refugees who had no hope of returning to Sudan was suspended.

Now, even if Abraham survives the day-to-day dangers in the camp, a peace accord will probably deliver him directly into the hands of the SPLA. Peace for Sudan does not mean peace for Abraham and thousands like him.

The writer, a professor of immigration studies at Ca’ Foscari University, Venice, has served as a consultant to UNHCR in Africa.