KHARTOUM/JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - Southern Sudanese stacked 30 years’ of possessions on to a truck, preparing to quit Khartoum in the north and head home to make sure their vote counts in a looming independence referendum.
Hundreds of thousands of south Sudanese have flooded to the north over the past decades, escaping poverty and conflict in the hope of finding a better life in the ramshackle refugee camps around Khartoum.
Now many are making plans to go back — 740 miles (1,200 km) by airplane from Khartoum to the southern capital Juba, much further by road and river Nile — to take part in the referendum, scheduled for January 9, on whether the south should declare independence or stay part of Sudan.
Southerners living in the north and eight other countries outside Sudan have the right to vote where they are — registration centres have been set up across the capital.
But many fear reprisals if, as is widely expected, southerners choose independence, and are suspicious their votes will be miscounted by northern authorities keen to keep hold of the oil-producing south.
“I am going back because I want to vote in the south,” said one student, speaking under his breath as he helped load the metal beds and plastic chairs, accumulated by his neighbours during their northern exile and now destined for villages around the town of Bentiu in south Sudan’s Unity state.
He was keeping quiet for a reason. Seconds later an official walked over to the party carrying a folder marked with the name of north Sudan’s National Congress Party (NCP). The student raised his voice and changed his tune. “No, this is nothing to do with the referendum. We are not interested in politics. This is just a normal return.”
Away from the lorry, deep in Khartoum’s Mandela refugee camp, elderly chief Thon Duode Chol was less cautious. “There is a referendum coming and people are returning ... If no one can organise transport, we will go back by foot.”
“People are scared. They have heard rumours they will not get medical treatment after the referendum,” said southern elder Chol Makwej. “If I vote here, maybe they will change my vote to a vote for unity.”
Many of the fears are fuelled by the distrust of northerners left after the long civil war. More recent statements from northern ministers that southerners would lose their northern citizenship rights after an independence vote — and could even be denied needles in state hospitals — have also not helped.
On top of that, the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has been giving increasingly clear signals it would rather most southerners voted in the south.
It is difficult to get a clear idea of how many southerners are setting off on their exodus. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said it had no figures as no official internationally backed repatriations were taking place.
Other observers have been keeping a more informal watch on border crossings and arrival points.
A total of 7,829 people had returned to Bentiu by November 9 as part of repatriation push organised by Unity state and there were reports governors from other southern states were also making plans to visit Khartoum in the near future to plan the return of their own former citizens, according to a U.N. paper.
One indicator of at least southerners’ reluctance to vote in the north came on Monday, the first day of voter registration for the referendum.
Thousands spent the day queuing at more than 2,623 registration centres across the south, Aleu Garang Aleu, spokesman for the vote’s organising commission, told Reuters. In contrast, many registration centres set up in Khartoum had only recorded a handful of names when Reuters visited them.
“The turnout in the north was very low because of fears people have. They do not want to be identified,” Aleu said. “There (is) a lot of intimidation because it is not in the interest of the government of Khartoum to see people of southern Sudan advocating for their right to have independence.”
In recent weeks, northern officials have made more conciliatory speeches. On Sunday, northern and southern leaders signed a “framework agreement” promising to let people choose their nationality following an independence vote.
Less than two months to go before the referendum, the southern fears have remained.
“What is this referendum,” asked the intercessor at prayers at a Sunday evening service at Khartoum’s All Saints Anglican Cathedral. “It is just a word but it has become like a mountain. People are scared. They are leaving for the south. They are going to other countries.” The mostly southern congregation murmured its Amen and prayed for peace.