January 11, 2014 (JUBA) – The International Organization of Migration (IOM) has begun airlifting some 600 South Sudanese returnees from Upper Nile state capital Malakal, where they had become stranded on their way home due to recent heavy fighting in the area.
In a press statement on Friday, the IOM said the returnees from Sudan had been living in transit sites in the border town of Renk for several months without any means to continue their journey, and had boarded an IOM barge to reach their final destinations when they became stranded due to the conflict.
Returnees left Renk by barge on 15 December, the same day that conflict broke out in the capital, Juba, bound for various destinations.
Conflict flared in the capital after clashes between rival factions of the presidential guards, subsequently spreading throughout the country as the violence took on a tribal dimension.
According to the IOM, fighting forced the barge to stop in Malakal, where the group took shelter at a way station, a transit point for new arrivals.
Malakal saw heavy fighting between government troops and rebel forces aligned with former vice-president Riek Machar between 24 December and 3 January.
Several returnees sheltering at the way station were shot, with three killed and four injured, said the IOM.
The IOM, with the support of the US office of foreign disaster assistance (OFDA), initiated the evacuation on Wednesday after transportation by barge was deemed no longer safe.
The operation will consist of 17 flights over a period of nine days, with returnees to be relocated Juba, Wau and Aweil in the Bahr el Ghazal region.
As of Thursday, 154 returnees had been airlifted to Juba, where they were taken to the Juba way station. Basic humanitarian services including food, water, shelter and healthcare are being provided in collaboration with IOM partners.
The IOM said a total of 366 individuals will be transported to Juba, many of whom will remain at the way station until security conditions improve to allow them to continue their onward journey to various parts of the Greater Equatoria region. The remaining returnees will be flown to either Wau or Aweil, where IOM will organise buses to transport them to their final destinations.
IOM provides help to South Sudanese wishing to return home, with over 9,000 individuals assisted in 2013.
About two million people have returned to South Sudan since a 2005 peace agreement ended a more than two decades’ long civil war with the north.
Aid agencies say tens of thousands of returnees are still living in temporary settlements or transit sites awaiting onward transport assistance and without access to proper healthcare and sanitation.