By Richard Sultan

Outside their temporary shelters of tents and rickety buildings made of iron-sheet roofs and no walls, South Sudanese refugee returnees crowded together one recent morning, awaiting the arrival of members of a youth-led initiative known as Citizens’ Call for Emergency Evacuation and Reception of South Sudanese Trapped in Sudan’s War (CC-ERRI). The returnees expected a much-needed food delivery from CC-ERRI – a few kilos of rice for each recipient. Some of the returnees said CC-ERRI does more than their government or other humanitarian agencies to help. One returnee named her newborn child “Citizens Call” in honor of the support she receives from the initiative. 

The scale of need in Sudan and South Sudan is staggering. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, announced in a statement on January 31 that battles between the army and the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan have led to the displacement of “about 8 million” people since last April 15. Some are internally displaced within Sudan, and others have sought help elsewhere, including South Sudan. According to the UNHCR, since last April, an average of 1,500 people cross daily into South Sudan from Sudan. Many of these were originally from South Sudan, but fled to Sudan during their own country’s civil war.

As the returnees patiently waited, some women talked and others stared off into space. One woman, known as Mama Abdalla, who is the mother of two children under 5 years old, told Amjambo, “When the fighting started, my husband wasn’t at home as he works in a construction site outside Khartoum. We couldn’t wait for him to come back, as that would mean the end of us, considering the intensity of the fighting in our neighborhood. ” She added that when her neighbor informed her of free trucks taking people to South Sudan, she jumped on board with her children.

The trucks were driven by members of CC-ERRI, and eventually evacuated over 10,000 South Sudanese from the battleground suburbs of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. This was a herculean effort that the returnees hoped would continue as long as there were still South Sudanese stuck in Sudan – including Mama Abdalla’s husband.

The situation in Khartoum and other towns of Sudan has outgrown our ability,” said Akoc Manhiem.

However, in an exclusive interview with Amjambo Africa, Akoc Manhiem, the head of CC-ERRI, said the organization has been forced to suspend evacuation because the security situation between Khartoum and the South Sudan border of Joda is too challenging to maneuver at this point. 

“Following intense fighting this month of January, the situation in Khartoum and other towns of Sudan has outgrown our ability. We have readily procured trucks, in fact, tens of them, but they cannot access Khartoum. We are getting reports of corpses everywhere, mass burial sometimes, and endless ambushes along the way.” As Manhiem spoke, he fished out a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his tears, a sign of the emotional toll the returnee and refugee crisis has taken on him since April 2023. 

When Mama Abdalla heard there would be no more trucks traveling from Khartoum, she screamed “Oohhh!! No, Yaaa Rabiii!” in the local Arabic dialect (“Oh, no, my God!”). Reassurances were offered that South Sudanese are safe, as neither side in the conflict sees them as enemies – and Mama Abdalla was somewhat soothed.

“Thank you, Allah. Allah is Great. May He protect you,” she said. She glanced at her two boys, then lifted both of her palms up above her head, either to beg from – or thank – the heavenly powers, or perhaps both at once. That’s when the truck was heard approaching, like the biblical manna, and Abdalla grabbed her empty sack and made her dash toward the full bags of rice, in unison with the rest.  

Akoc said that a few ounces of rice can’t sustain life for long, and his team anticipates a sleepless night, pleading for help from fellow South Sudanese to provide the returnees and the refugees at Gorom Refugee Resettlement with enough sustenance to live another day. 

“Initially, our initiative was to only evacuate South Sudanese from Khartoum and other parts of Sudan across the border to South Sudan. … However, the government and the humanitarian agencies became stretched, so we chipped in. … If we don’t support these returnees and refugees, their situation will become worse than crowded Renk, [a town] which is currently a ticking bomb, waiting to explode during the upcoming rainy season if nothing is done,” he said.

While life for the returnees is difficult, the situation in the refugee camps is worse, according to sources. Unlike the returnees, whose relatives may sometimes visit to offer mental, financial, and material support when able, the refugees must solely rely on humanitarian agencies and charity from individuals. And the gap in funding for most humanitarian agencies has widened, with donor priorities shifting to conflicts in Ukraine, and now Gaza, which means meeting even the basic needs of the refugees is a difficult task.

“I was in Khartoum when the conflict started. My South Sudanese friend Tombe Mohamed advised me to come with him to South Sudan,” Ramadhan B.

A young man of 26 years, who originally hails from the Darfur region of Sudan and asked to be referred to as Ramadhan B. for his safety, said he discovered the lows of life in the refugee camp the hard way.

“I was in Khartoum when the conflict started. My South Sudanese friend Tombe Mohamed advised me to come with him to South Sudan, as it was easier compared to going to Darfur. Luckily, we all had money then. So, we made our way to Renk, and proceeded to Juba, connecting through several towns before finally making it,” he said. He explained that he then struggled to cope with life in the camp. The loneliness, the meager food, the anxiety of living day to day, unable to plan for tomorrow, was debilitating. But he had some luck after three months, when his friend Mohamed visited him.  

“So far so good. Alhamdulillah! Thanks to God, I now sell baked bread in this local bakery. It is for Tombe’s uncle. He also works here. I am in the morning shift and he’s in the afternoon shift.” He nodded in satisfaction at his new status and pulled out his headset to listen to music.

Ramadhan B. said that he finds it consoling and peaceful to listen to music alone in a quiet place after his shift, and a good lunch. Today, he is alone in his favorite spot, about five meters from the bakery, in the cool shade of a mango tree, not very far from the Nile River, in Lologo, a slum-like suburb of Juba near the Freedom Bridge.

Asked what type of music he enjoys, he replied, “I used to like old-school hip-hop, but since arriving in Juba, I found myself enjoying soul-soothing Arabic rhythm and blues, like [the Lebanese singer] Nancy Ajiram, among others. They constantly remind me of my girlfriend, who heaven knows where she escaped. I just hope that by luck, Allah will direct her towards South Sudan.”

When he overheard the news that previously accessible routes for crossing into South Sudan from Sudan had become too dangerous to use, Ramadhan yanked his headphones off and burst out, “How is that possible? No, no, no, no. The last time I spoke to my girlfriend, South Sudan was their final destination. … Something is not right … something is not right somewhere.”

South Sudanese are calling out for help from their government

In fact, South Sudanese are calling out for help from their government, angry that their government is not doing enough to help their people. Meanwhile, the South Sudanese government appeals relentlessly to humanitarian agencies for help, whom they refer to as “development partners.”

Last December, in a panel discussion in Geneva on the impact of the Sudan Conflict, Hon. Albino Akol, South Sudan’s Minister for Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, highlighted the role of the agencies. “Our humanitarian partners are doing everything possible to help, but the situation is dire. We cannot provide basic services, treat simple illnesses, prevent hunger, and help people settle in safe locations.” 

Akol continued, “As we face this crisis, with no end in sight, humanitarian funding is reduced. We expect more cuts in food rations for refugees next year and less possibility for partners to provide decent shelters that would permit refugees to live in dignity. Worse, with the world’s attention elsewhere, we risk a crisis within a crisis.” His words echoed the constant appeals from the humanitarian agency leaders themselves for more help from the global community.

Distant peace

A peaceful solution to the Sudan war is unlikely unless Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdelrahman al-Burhan, the de facto leader of Sudan following a coup in 2021, changes his tune. Addressing the forces of the 44th Brigade on January 30, he said, “We will continue our battle to defeat this rebellion with unprecedented popular support. The Sudanese people and the army are together in one trench until this rebellion is defeated.” This statement echoed his previous calls for the citizens to take up arms to fight the RSF, a move known in Sudan as Popular Resistance.

Sudanese politician Husham al-Shawani views popular resistance as a duty and a step toward state-building. However, Mohamed al-Faki Suleiman, a former member of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council, cautioned against the dangers of arming citizens and their involvement in warfare. And Khalid Omer Yousif, from the Coordination of Civil Democratic Forces (Taqaddum), warned of the war’s evolving ethnic and racial dimensions, which he feared would take the region to a point of no return.

Richard Sultan is a South Sudanese freelance journalist based in the capital Juba.