A glimmer of hope for Sudanese refugees as referendum looms
Lual Dau Peter’s life could change forever Sunday. That’s the day he plans to join more than 4 million southern Sudanese who will gather at voting booths, set up in Sudan and Kenya, to decide whether their section of their homeland should secede from the northern part of the country.
Dau’s story mirrors that of many Sudanese refugees in Kenya. They speak of hardship and resilience. For these refugees, Jan. 9, 2011, represents a moment for which they’ve waited so long.
“We are tired of wars,” said Dau, 30, who said he’ll vote for the first time in his life. “This election will shape Sudan and bring back this country to the world map.”
Refugees who fled ongoing violence in southern Sudan have camped in Kenya, some for decades. Sudan earned independence from Great Britain in 1956 but it has since been marred by violence. The Second Sudanese Civil War, which erupted in 1983 and revived the violence of the first war in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, continued for 21 years. More than 2 million people died. Among the dead was Dau’s father, Dau said.
The conflict has largely been centered on issues of equality and resource sharing, including oil wealth, between the south and the north. The country’s oil reserves are in the south, a vast yet undeveloped region. The country’s seat of government and most of the infrastructure is in the north.
Another fueling factor was racial and religious disparity between the predominantly Muslim north and the largely Christian south.
Still, many southern Sudanese say they’re not interested in discussing ethnicity or religion.
“It was a struggle for dignity, equality and equitable distribution of national resources,” said Michael Orwa, an international affairs analyst.
To escape ongoing violence, southern Sudanese refugees fled to neighboring Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.
“I have stayed in Kenya for 18 years,” said Wu Mic, an artist who resides in Nairobi. “This is our second home.”
Life in southern Sudan stabilized in 2005, when the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling party in the south, signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Sudanese government, based in Khartoum in the north.
Analysts say the agreement paved the way for a peaceful secession, setting a precedent for African politics.
“Issues of self-determination are as emotive as they are explosive,” Orwa said. “Yet if after half a century the people of Southern Sudan have never felt a sense of belonging in this unity of colonial convenience, then the international community has an obligation to support the wishes, hence the outcome of the referendum.”
With an ongoing flood of refugees, Kenya became famous for giant, squalid camps, home to tens of thousands of people who feared for their lives in their homelands. Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya, just one of several such camps, was home to thousands of Lost Boys, a group of young assumed orphans who banded together and braved a wilderness teeming with armed militias, wild animals and other dangers as they marched out of Sudan and toward Kenya.
A large number of the Lost Boys, most of whom are now adults, have since resettled in the United States, along with many Sudanese families. But a huge number of refugees remained in Kenya.
There are 25,000 Sudanese refugees in Kenya, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees said. Before a repatriation program was initiated in 2008, there were 80,000 refugees in Kenya.
“In comparison to other refugees who have fled wars in other countries like Somalia, the Sudanese are better off,” said Caroline Njuki, a Kenyan scholar who has worked with the Kenyan government at the Kakuma camp.
The community, she said, “tend to integrate better, which helps them to thrive in Kenya.”
The refugees have spread to cities throughout Kenya, including Kisumu, Kitale and Ruiru.
There, they’ve pursued education, started business and carved out livelihoods for themselves, said Njuki.
If southern Sudan secedes and remains stable, those Sudanese refugees in Kenya could become the backbone of the new country’s development.
But some refugees aren’t convinced that the referendum will bring peace to their war-ravaged country.
“Unless the reasons that make people fled their homes are addressed,” said Njuki. “We cannot talk about repatriation.”
Still, experts say most Sudanese in Kenya will head home if the referendum is peaceful and successful.
“There’s no waiting for me here,” said Akim Akim, a clothing merchant in Nairobi. “I’m heading home as soon as the results are out.”