Sadly, South Sudanese people are accustomed to living their lives on the run. Millions of southerners fled their homes during the latest north-south civil war, escaping aerial raids by the northern Sudanese army or running from Khartoum-backed southern militias, who cleared vast swathes of territory to enable oil companies to begin exploiting the south’s significant reserves amid the chaos created by decades of near-continuous conflict.
The latest round of population movements and displacement is related to the south’s long-awaited and hard-won independence vote earlier this month. Last August, the Southern Sudanese government unveiled its ambitious plan to bring southerners living in northern Sudan home en masse in advance of the referendum. At that time, the southern ministry in charge of the effort said it would bring home 1.5 million southerners before the vote. United Nations agencies and aid groups that had assisted the return of more than 2 million southerners since the war ended in 2005 quietly began panicking at the prospect of such an enormous population influx during the run-up to the south’s independence vote. Aid workers and UN officials would speak at length off-the-record about their reticence to participate in a returns process that would inevitably be viewed as politically motivated by the Khartoum government and the international community, but most refused to discuss their concerns publicly.