Returnees on the Barge: South Sudan
It’s unusually cloudy in Juba. It’s January, meaning the dry season has descended with impact. Yet there is a rare cool breeze and even the threat of rain on this morning. Child Protection Officers (CPO) Malish Philip Gali and Kudzi Mativirira are standing along the littered banks of the Nile River at the Juba Port looking for the first sight of a barge carrying hundreds of refugees returning to South Sudan from Khartoum. The last of a morning mist is cast over the river. Aside from two fishermen in a dugout canoe casting nets into the water, and the occasional police speedboats sputtering by, the river is empty. International Organization for Migration (IOM) officials have set up tables by the dock to prepare for the registration of the returnees. Collections of people are standing by the bank, ready to receive their family members and friends. Near midday the barge is sighted a few kilometers up the river. Moments later it disappears behind a grove of mango trees. After waiting most of the day, the team learns the barge had a mechanical failure, which forced it to dock by the tiny village of Kondokoro on the outskirts of Juba. Registration and humanitarian services are postponed until the following morning.
The morning proves to be eventful. The returnees are walking on a shaky wooden plank off the barge onto the banks of the Nile. Young men juggle cumbersome loads, a stream of women carry large sacks on their heads and children trail behind them dragging pitchers of water. The ones who already made it off are haphazardly strewn about the grass, sitting atop their suitcases and large sacks of grain and sorghum. They surround the IOM registration table, while a long queue forms in front. An old man is asleep from seeming exhaustion on a traditional Sudanese rope bed. Steps away some men are hauling the returnees’ belongings onto three large trucks, to be transported to the Way Station, a temporary shelter run by UNHCR for returnees on transition to locations outside of Juba. Some remain on the barge smoking shisha (flavored tobacco) or gathering the last of their belonging, waiting for the rush to die down. Residents of Kondokoro spot the opportunity to sell mangos and ardeb, a local fruit, to the arrivals. Local TV stations are on hand to capture it all.
The barge is carrying over a thousand passengers, all refugees who fled what was then southern Sudan for Khartoum due to fighting, famine or forced displacement. The question of citizenship and nationality for these refugees was not settled in the peace agreement between South Sudan and Sudan. They have no legal status in the north, and thus are vulnerable and at risk. The government of South Sudan initiated a program to transport the refugees back home. The barges arrive roughly every two months. Humanitarian agencies such as the IOM and UNHCR are on hand to receive the returnees and provide much needed services. NP’s role is to be present when the barge arrives and identify unaccompanied minors, separated children and vulnerable persons, distinguish their immediate needs and connect them to the appropriate service providers. NP provides protective presence and accompaniment while investigating each case, and safely transports the minors from the port to interim care centers and eventually to the child’s family or community.
CPO Malish Philip Gali is by the plank examining the arrivals and trying to identify unaccompanied minors, while assisting women when the sacks on their heads threaten to fall. Meanwhile, Team Leader Kudzi Mativirira is verifying that there are no unaccompanied minors among the returnees the IOM has already registered, and roaming around the grounds trying to see if any children are without a parent or guardian. When most of the returnees are off the barge, Malish walks onboard to search the platform. Afterwards, he weaves through the throngs of people outside to find the chief and confirm with him that there are no unaccompanied minors or separated children among the arrivals. They search for several hours and exhaust all efforts before concluding that there were no unaccompanied minors on this trip.
For a final confirmation the team heads to the UNHCR interim care center over the next two days, where a second registration is done for the returnees on transit to towns outside of Juba. Again no unaccompanied minors turn up, so the team decides to follow up on a case of a 12-year-old, Asunta, who arrived unaccompanied on a previous barge from Khartoum. Asunta is staying with a volunteer social worker for Street Children Aid while NP continues to trace her family. Plans are made to continue searching for her mother, who is said to be in Juba. First, the team will search the Way Station for members of her tribe, the Shilluk, so Asunta can socialize with other children from her community at the center’s child friendly space. Then, the team prepares to visit the Juba Port where they will trace her mother’s whereabouts through new Shilluk arrivals from Khartoum, as community members in South Sudan are tight knit and often find each-other by word of mouth. If that fails, the team will visit one of the Shilluk chiefs of Juba, who will assist in reunifying Asunta by spreading word through the church and the community. Meanwhile, NP and the Ministry of Social Development (MoSD) will broadcast Asunta’s case on radio and TV. Protection and family tracing work requires a lot of patience and resourcefulness, and NP is continually finding creative ways to trace children’s families under difficult circumstances.
By Atkilt Gelata
PHOTO CAPTION 1: The returnees wait to be registered while sitting along the banks of the Nile with their belongings.
PHOTO CAPTION 2: Child Protection Officer Malish helps women carry heavy belongings off the barge.