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

Sun Foreign Staff

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

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

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

Like the thousands of displaced families in Darfur who have been lingering for months in bleak camps unsure of their future, Maeike is waiting for the day 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 refugee camp with thousands of hastily constructed shelters like Maeike's, about 20 miles southwest of Khartoum, not far from the banks of the White Nile.

According to the last official estimates, 100,000 people are crammed into this 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 form Khartoum's underclass, toiling as day laborers in the textile factories, washing clothes in Arab homes, hawking shoe shines and sweets on the city's dusty streets. The rest idle away days and nights in a community racked by malaria, cholera and malnutrition.

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

And this camp might as well be as far away. The plight of the people here long ago disappeared from the pages of newspapers. There have been plenty of other horror stories in Africa since people began moving here: slaughter in Rwanda, 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 of Khartoum know little about the hardships of their neighbors. Residents of the camps come from a half-dozen tribes, speaking different languages, practicing Christianity, Islam and traditional animist beliefs. What holds this diverse community together is the shared hope that someday they will return whence they 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 that would allow millions of refugees to return to their homes. But as the spotlight turns to the Darfur crisis, experts fear there is little chance of Khartoum or the West having the time or stamina to finally bring an end to this war.

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

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

Even donors are beginning to lose interest, locals say, shifting limited resources 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 this camp, offers the newly displaced in Darfur this advice: "Be open-minded and settle your dispute. Don't take the same path we've taken," he said as he stood 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, where his family kept cattle, owned a house and some farmland.

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

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

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

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

But months became years. Maieke graduated from high school, buried his mother 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 the South 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 and soap," said Michael Anengi Sungeya, 61, a chief of the Azande tribe who has lived 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 and nodded eagerly in agreement.

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

What really is waiting for them back home is not clear, and the logistical problems 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 what they left there is like that anymore," said Ekramul Kabir, who manages a food security project for the private humanitarian organization CARE in the four camps 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 better elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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