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While Darfur boils, Sudan's forgotten yearn to go home

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OMDURMAN ES SALAAM, Sudan - Peter Maeike's house is a patchwork of sugarsacks, plastic sheeting and cardboard stretched over a pole frame, so fragilethat a strong breeze might lift it into the air.

It would not look out of place in Sudan's western Darfur region, where agovernment-backed campaign against black African tribes has left up to 50,000people dead and driven 1.5 million civilians out of their homes and intosprawling relief camps in search of food, shelter and safety.

But Darfur is not Sudan's only troubled region. Maeike comes from southernSudan, where a five-decade war between the Arab-led government and rebelsthere has left 2 million people dead and uprooted about 4 million people fromtheir farms and villages.

Like the thousands of displaced families in Darfur who have been lingeringfor months in bleak camps unsure of their future, Maeike is waiting for theday that peace and security will be restored in the south so he can go home.

He has been waiting 16 years.

Those years have been spent here in Omdurman es Salaam, a sun-baked refugeecamp with thousands of hastily constructed shelters like Maeike's, about 20miles southwest of Khartoum, not far from the banks of the White Nile.

According to the last official estimates, 100,000 people are crammed intothis labyrinth of mud huts, tent-like shelters and garbage-strewn canals,though the population is probably far higher, aid agencies say.

Unemployment hovers around 90 percent. The luckiest residents formKhartoum's underclass, toiling as day laborers in the textile factories,washing clothes in Arab homes, hawking shoe shines and sweets on the city'sdusty streets. The rest idle away days and nights in a community racked bymalaria, cholera and malnutrition.

There are no trees, no grass, and very little that is green, just vastexpanses of rocky, reddish soil capped on a recent morning by a powder-bluesky. Take away the shacks and the people and this landscape looks eerilysimilar to photographs of Mars.

And this camp might as well be as far away. The plight of the people herelong ago disappeared from the pages of newspapers. There have been plenty ofother horror stories in Africa since people began moving here: slaughter inRwanda, wars in Congo and Liberia, and now a humanitarian crisis -"genocide,"according to the United States - in Darfur.

They wait, and hope

Still, they wait, unseen and rarely heard. Even lifelong residents ofKhartoum know little about the hardships of their neighbors. Residents of thecamps come from a half-dozen tribes, speaking different languages, practicingChristianity, Islam and traditional animist beliefs. What holds this diversecommunity together is the shared hope that someday they will return whencethey came.

During the past two years, it seemed that that opportunity might arrive.Khartoum and the southern rebels have nearly hammered out a peace deal thatwould allow millions of refugees to return to their homes. But as thespotlight turns to the Darfur crisis, experts fear there is little chance ofKhartoum or the West having the time or stamina to finally bring an end tothis war.

International and local relief efforts continue to distribute food,medicine and other aid to about 4 million people in camps throughout thecounty, including 2 million near Khartoum.

In Omdurman es Salaam, the government started a project to sell plots ofland to residents so they could build more-permanent structures, though mostare too poor to pay the $75.

Even donors are beginning to lose interest, locals say, shifting limitedresources to focus on the emergency in Darfur.

No one knows how long the displaced civilians will wait before going home.

But Maieke, who at 23 has known little else in his life other than thiscamp, offers the newly displaced in Darfur this advice: "Be open-minded andsettle your dispute. Don't take the same path we've taken," he said as hestood perspiring in the midmorning sun. "We don't wish this for them."

A member of the Shilluk tribe, Maieke was raised in the Upper Nile, wherehis family kept cattle, owned a house and some farmland.

Growing up, Maieke was always aware of the war. Southern rebels resistingcontrol by the Arab-led government have been fighting for all but 10 yearssince the country gained independence from Britain in 1956. The most recentchapter in the conflict started in 1983 when black tribes resisted governmentattempts to institute Islamic law in the South.

But his family wanted no part of the conflict, Maieke says. They justwanted to continue farming and raising cattle. Still, the war came to theirvillage in 1988, when a rebel army desperate for recruits began kidnappingyoung men to fight the government.

Before they knocked on his door, Maieke's father gathered his family andran into the bush. For three weeks, Maieke, then 7 years old, ploddednorthward, his father scouting several miles ahead to warn them of danger.

A truck driver eventually drove them to Khartoum, where they thought theywould wait a few weeks, maybe a few months, for the fighting to end.

But months became years. Maieke graduated from high school, buried hismother and father, and opened a small business in the camp, selling coal,canned food and vegetables.

Still, he dreams of going home. To what he doesn't know.

"There's nothing to stay for here," he said.

Going home again

In the imaginations of many of the Sudanese living here, their homes in theSouth have become almost mythical places where rows of corn grow effortlessly,rain falls regularly and trees hang heavy with fruit.

"Life back home is much better. All you need to buy back home is salt andsoap," said Michael Anengi Sungeya, 61, a chief of the Azande tribe who haslived in the camp since 1996. Nature, he says, takes care of everything else.

A group of men, women and children in tattered clothing sat at his feet andnodded eagerly in agreement.

"If there was a car here, I would go right now. I'm already packed," saidthe chief excitedly, pointing toward the south.

What really is waiting for them back home is not clear, and the logisticalproblems of moving 4 million people back to their land are daunting at best.

"They are all thinking of nice homes and farmland, but I don't think whatthey left there is like that anymore," said Ekramul Kabir, who manages a foodsecurity project for the private humanitarian organization CARE in the fourcamps near Khartoum. "I strongly feel that they will not be able to go back."

Still, no one would blame anyone here for imagining that life is betterelsewhere.

Angelina Anong of the Dinka tribe believed as much when she decided toreturn nearly two decades after leaving her hometown of Abyei.

She saved money from her job as a cleaner and waited for a lull in thefighting. In 2000, she gathered her four children and boarded a bus to hertown.

Her family's home, she discovered, had vanished long ago, as had many ofher relatives and friends. She stayed with an aunt for several months so herchildren would know where they came from.

But there was little to keep her there, and she returned with her childrento Khartoum, where her job was waiting. She started earning money again, thistime to buy mud bricks so she could build something more permanent in thecamp, a one-room house.

She doesn't think much about going home anymore, she says, because forbetter or worse, she is already there.

"Home is where you make it," she said. "For now, it's here."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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