When Martha Along first arrived on this dusty square of desert, dotted with the ghosts of half-built apartment blocks, she thought she’d be here for a week only. She had been told that from here a bus would take her to Rumbek in South Sudan where she was born. Her own children were all born in Khartoum, but South Sudan was about to become independent and she wanted them all to move there.
That, she says, was three years ago. She is still waiting for the bus.
In that time she has been living, like thousands of others also stranded, under rags and canvas. Her only income, she says, is 3-5 Sudanese pounds (around 50 cents) for a day’s domestic work in the houses of richer Sudanese. She says the cost of a few litres of water is one Sudanese pound, the same as a handful of coffee beans, and food is in short supply. She just wants to go south. “I am waiting for anything to take me, a bus, a truck, even an aeroplane,” she says, pulling her pink tobe closely around her, as she clutches her two-month-old baby boy.
A shop in one of the make-shift tents in the camps sells essential products. A little pile of charcoal goes for about two Sudanese pounds – but the main things that sell, says the owner, are meagre plastic bags of flour and sugar, as well as bottled water.
Martha’s children used to go to school in this area, Soba, on the south east edge of Khartoum. But no longer. The South’s independence led to Southerners losing their citizenship rights and their jobs. She can no longer send her kids to school. These thousands of stranded Southerners are now effectively aliens in the only place that many of them have ever called home.
For those who once fought in the army or worked in the police or Sudan’s civil service their situation is worse. For they are waiting for their pensions to be paid – only then they say they will leave.
Martin Mjok Boy, who is the Sultan (community leader) of Camp A, at the Kongor departure point in Soba, used to work in the Sudanese police force. “We want to go but we are also waiting for our pensions,” he says.”Those who served only a short time [in the police] took their pensions and left. But those who are due long service pensions are still waiting.”
Like everyone else in the camp, Martin’s home is rudimentary: two beds overhung with canvas. He says when they arrived here more than two years ago, there was transport to take people to the South. “At first people were going by train, but then that stopped. Then it was by bus and that stopped and the road closed. We want to go anyway we can, train or bus or anything.”
The airlift remains the only option which is the most expensive option and since there are other needs we somehow have to address - the floods and the situation in Darfur - the budget for the airlift might be costly.
Initially, both governments, along with the international aid agencies, helped pay for the journey. More than 100,000 Southerners benefitted from this operation which involved trucks, trains, buses and barges, to make the difficult trip south which can take many weeks. But then the money ran out – and those last in the queue became stranded at 35 departure points around Khartoum.
No relief in sight
In the years they have been waiting, renewed conflict on the border between Sudan and South Sudan has closed the roads. This has driven up the cost of their return – they now have to go by plane. The UN estimates it will cost around $20m to fly them home.
It seems no one is prepared to pay for this. For the Sudanese government, the needs of Southerners who voted overwhelmingly to secede in the 2011 referendum, are hardly a political priority. Southern independence impoverished the north, taking with it 70 percent of its oil income. With austerity measures in place, there are already limitless demands on very limited government money.
For more than a year, South Sudan cutoff its only real source of income – oil – in a dispute with the north. It is also cash strapped. But it is not just the money: those who spent the civil war on the wrong side of the frontline are also not, analysts say, seen as a political priority in Juba.
That leaves the mainly Western governments that supported Southern independence, as the only hope for these people escaping the bleak conditions and indefinite limbo in the north.
But Western governments are also facing budget constraints. Already this year the international aid budget for Sudan has virtually halved. The EU is one of Sudan’s main donors of humanitarian aid. And the dilemma for them, as for all the donors, is that in Sudan there are many other – often life-threatening – demands on their limited funds.
Tomas Ulicny, the EU’s ambassador to Sudan, says, “It will be difficult to allocate sufficient funds for those who have been stranded,” stressing that they would only help people who wanted to go back.”The airlift remains the only option which is the most expensive option and since there are other needs we somehow have to address – the floods and the situation in Darfur – the budget for the airlift might be costly.”
It seems that the plight of the thousands of stranded Southerners is not high on anyone’s agenda. But that does not stop these forgotten Sudanese who so far have paid a high price for their country’s independence, from hoping.
Bibian Jon, 28, is working long hours as a cleaner at the local university to survive. She is longing to go south to join her eight-year-old daughter who is living with her mother in Fashoda, in Upper Nile state. “Life is very difficult,” she says pushing away a tear that escapes her eye. “I want to go back as soon as I can to be with my little girl.”
Paulino Batista, a carpenter, says he has been waiting three years at the camp. “I need to go South. If I had the money I would go, anyway I could. The problem I have, is the one we all have, we don’t have the money to travel.”