S. Sudanese face chaotic homecoming ahead of vote

Many Southern Sudanese who have returned home to vote in a January independence referendum are stranded and hungry in overcrowded camps, residents said Saturday.

About 1.5 million residents fled oil-rich Southern Sudan during the 20-year civil war and the government is eager to bring as many of them home as possible to vote in the Jan. 9 poll. That vote could see the creation of the world's newest country and give the south independence from the north.

Some southerners arrived from the northern Sudanese capital on long convoys of buses laid on by the government of Southern Sudan as part of their $25 million "come home to choose" program. They are entitled to some aid from the World Food Program and other agencies.

But others, like 30-year-old Elizabeth Nyapuka, trickle home individually and are not included in official counts or entitled to any help. She's staying with a group of other returnees in a temporary camp with mattresses laid out in the courtyard of a school in the Unity state capital of Bentiu. The compound is packed with furniture and other personal possessions.

The mother of five said she was forced off a bus for questioning by northern Sudanese soldiers as she traveled through a contested border zone. Now that she's arrived, Nyapuka says she can't afford to feed her children and doesn't know how she'll make the remainder of the journey to her village more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the west.

The top U.S. official in Southern Sudan said that the conditions returnees faces are dire.

"We've got to get these people out of here," said Ambassador Barrie Walkley as he surveyed the scene at the elementary school.

The government of Unity state is expecting more than 125,000 people to return home to vote, said William Kuol, the state head of the commission overseeing the official returns process. Figures were not yet available for the other nine southern states.

There have also been many "spontaneous returns" — people who did not travel south in one of the government-organized convoys and so have not been counted.

"We are going to keep repatriating (southerners) up to the referendum," said Kuol, who said he believes the northern government may attempt to tamper with votes that southerners cast in the northern capital of Khartoum.

The southern government has appealed to international donors for help in funding programs that bring southerners home to vote. But aid groups and U.N. agencies are reluctant to support the plan because they don't want to be seen taking sides.

Voting registration ends on Dec. 1 and according to the referendum law, people must vote in the place in which they are registered. But even in Unity — one of the most organized states dealing with returnees — there is no plan yet to transport them from the state capital to their villages, said William Daoud Riak, the deputy state governor.