Unwelcome 'rescue' for Sudan's war victims


SUDAN: Not all those being repatriated to southern Sudan are victims of slavery - and some don't want to return at all, writes Rob Crilly in Malual Kon

Ahok Bol Akon was happy in northern Sudan, a land she had come to call home after leaving the war-torn south at the age of 11.

That didn't matter to the officials who decided she was ready to be repatriated as the 21-year civil war came to end.

They came for her as she left the hospital where her three-year-old son had died from malaria. Officials from the Dinka chiefs committee bundled her on to a cattle truck with barely a word of explanation.

"They just said they were taking me home," she says two months later in a dusty compound in Malual Kon, deep in territory held by southern rebels.

She was dumped after a two-day journey from Darfur. Other women and children have been reunited with long-lost families, but she has been forced to eke out a living among strangers.

Ahok is one of the reluctant returnees, caught up in a programme sponsored by the northern government to help modern-day slaves abducted in the south and taken north to reach home.

The programme has accelerated this year, after a comprehensive peace deal was signed by the mainly Muslim government and rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

However, Save the Children and Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, have withdrawn their support after dozens of cases like Ahok came to light - women and children who say they were happy in the north but who have been rounded up and sent south against their will.

For now Ahok is trying to get used to life in a hostile land, where women routinely queue for six hours in 50-degree heat to fill a jerry can with water.

Her five young children - with their light, northern colouring - stand out among the dark-skinned southerners.

"If only there was food for my children then I would worry less," she says, "but there is no food."

Sudan is a country trying to rebuild itself. Two million people died and four million fled their homes as southern rebels fought for independence from the northern government in Khartoum. Slave raids were common in the region of Bahr el Ghazal as government-allied Arab militia clashed with southern Dinka clans.

The mounted militias - known as Murahaleen - escorted trains from the north as they supplied government garrison towns in the south.

In return they were allowed to keep loot plundered from villages along the route. They took mostly cattle, but men, women and children were also loaded on to the wagons to become slaves in the north.

No one knows how many were taken although the British-Kenyan Rift Valley Institute has recorded more than 12,000 missing people.

The issue has been a political nightmare for the Khartoum government. Five years ago, under intense international pressure, ministers set up the Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC), tasked with returning those abducted.

At first individual cases were researched painstakingly. Save the Children and Unicef helped check that returnees were slaves rather than migrants who were happy to stay in the north, and to trace lost families.

More than 1,400 were returned before Khartoum signalled it wanted to accelerate the process last year.

The two aid organisations promptly withdrew, saying mass returns would not allow proper scrutiny. Since then several convoys of trucks have arrived in Bahr el Ghazal delivering their human cargo.

Ahok was among some 930 who have arrived this year, causing chaos in the town of Malual Kon.

One relief worker said the returnees had been "dumped" on international agencies operating in the region.

"Every abductee that is returned here is disrupting our work," he said.

"Why should we have to scramble to help when CEAWC are the people responsible?

"None of the agencies here has a budget to do it, and has to divert resources that are needed to help tens of thousands of other returnees and families in need." The criticism prompted CEAWC to halt the programme after the spring returns.

The main concern, according to a Unicef report, is that people were returned against their will.

In addition, families have been divided, with children travelling unaccompanied, and there has been insufficient food, water, medical facilities and shelter at their destinations, according to the report.

Ben Parker, a spokesman for Unicef, said: "Of course we welcome the return and reunification of abducted people and we accept that there are many genuine cases, but people being returned against their will is not a solution.

"For that reason we are pleased the programme has been suspended until the time we can work together to produce a more thorough, credible and better resourced system."

However, Ahmed Mufti, chairman of CEAWC, denied women were being returned against their will.

He said they were free to return once their northern marriages had been accepted by the southern families, according to the local Dinka custom.

"Once that has been done their husbands are free to come here to collect the wives," he added.

Ahok's case shows the complexity of the issue. Although she left the south voluntarily, she was later abducted as she reached the north, first by Arab militia and then by government troops who "rescued her".

One of the northern soldiers took the young girl to be his wife in Darfur. At first she was horrified, but gradually came to love her husband.

"I used to have a good life. Sometimes we rowed and then I would think of my people here, but I had no idea to leave," she says sadly, amid the dust, flies and squalor of Malual Kon.