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First Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia arrive home

First Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia arrive home under UN programme

Slaughtering a white bull and holding prayers at the border, some 500 Sudanese refugees arrived home yesterday in the first such repatriation convoy from Ethiopia under United Nations agreements that eventually aim to bring home the vast majority of the nearly 360,000 Sudanese who fled two decades of civil war.

The return convoy spent three days travelling from Bonga refugee camp in western Ethiopia, spending three nights in way stations built to facilitate operations along the 820-kilometre route, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing in Geneva today.

UNHCR supplied all returning refugees with a package of non-food items, including blankets, sleeping mats, plastic sheets, guinea-worm filters, kitchen sets and soap. The standard reintegration assistance, including a food ration planned to last until the returnees get their first harvest, is to be distributed at the dispersal point.

Some 79,000 south Sudanese live in five camps in western Ethiopia – Bonga, Dimma, Fugnido, Sherkole and Yarenja. Most of them arrived in Ethiopia in 1983 and in the 1990s.

UNHCR, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a tripartite agreement last month paving the way for the repatriation. Overall there are some 358,000 south Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries, and 4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Last week the agency signed a similar accord with Sudan and Uganda, covering 170,000 Sudanese in northern Uganda.

Since a peace accord ended the war between the Sudanese Government and southern rebels in January, 2005, UNHCR, along with other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), has been working to prepare for the returning refugees and IDPs. It has built or rebuilt schools, hospitals, vocational training centres and water points to help entire communities, not just the returnees themselves.

A separate, still-unresolved conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region has sent 200,000 Sudanese fleeing into eastern Chad, and internally displaced some 2 million more.

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