The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has hailed the first official voluntary repatriation by the refugee agency to southern Sudan from Kenya which saw the return 131 refugees last weekend.
In a statement received here Wednesday, the UN agency said it hopes that there will be many more return voyages by both refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Sudan in the coming months and years, culminating in "one of the most important refugee returns in history."
The WFP country representative in Kenya, Tesema Negash, said the problems caused by 21 years of civil war "are not going to disappear overnight," and noted that "bringing all the Sudanese home will take a long time and needs the international community's support to happen."
"The end is at last in sight, but we will all need to work to get there," said Negash.
The WFP is providing to this first group of 131 refugees a two-week ration of food that will be distributed on their arrival back in Sudan, while it will also assist them with a three-month returnee package of food once they are at home and registered.
Next year, the WFP said it plans to continue assisting IDPs, returnees and people whose livelihoods have been eroded by conflict and/or drought in Sudan.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said a first group of Sudanese refugees from Kenya should be arriving in their home villages.
In a statement, the agency said this is the first of about 60,000 refugees it plans to bring home in the next five months.
The UNHCR flew 131 refugees who have been living for up to 12 years in Kenya's northwestern Kakuma refugee, marking the end of two decades of exile for many of them.
The statement said the last leg of their journey has been made on foot and the refugees should reach their home villages Tuesday.
"All the refugees had advised us in advance that they had friends or relatives waiting for them who would help them transport their belongings back to their home villages, which they left 10 to 20 years ago," said the UNHCR.
"All the returnees were given household goods to help them reestablish their lives and the WFP distributed food rations to last six weeks."
Because the food is heavy, the WFP will make a second distribution with larger amounts in January, by which time the refuges should have a chance to organize transportation of that, it said.
"In addition to the first returnees, a further 1,600 refugees in Kakuma have signed up to return to South Sudan-mainly to the Upper Nile region," said the UNHCR.
"During the dry season, which should last until about May 2006, we expect to help about 10,000 South Sudanese refugees return from Kakuma and another 50,000 to return from refugee camps in six other neighboring countries," it added.
The refugee agency said it is planning to organized returns from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic next month.
In February, it will start returning Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia, adding that it could take at least four years to help all of the one-half million people who fled into exile go back to Southern Sudan.
The United Nations also expects that many of the four to six million people displaced by the war within Sudan will return to the homes they fled in the coming years.
Sudan's civil war in the south came to an end in January with the signing of peace accords between the government and rebels.
More than half a million refugees fled to neighboring countries during the civil war, while some four million people are displaced within Sudan, according to the UNHCR.
(Xinhua News Agency December 22, 2005)