Dozens of excited refugees leaned over the barge's railing as it glided up the Nile, marveling at the lush, green swamplands that had replaced the desert of northern Sudan. It was their first sign that they were nearing home.
"I'd forgotten nearly everything," said Kimo Achajh, 41, who since boyhood has lived in refugee camps around Khartoum, the capital, hundreds of miles north of his birthplace. "The first thing that came back to me are the smells," he said, inhaling the evening air filled with fragrances of papyrus, water-lilies and muddy floodlands watered by the White Nile.
The Captain 1 and Captain 2, barges lashed together and pushed by a motorboat, had crossed the ill-defined border between north and south Sudan a day earlier, carrying 401 southerners returning home. A few, like Achajh, remembered the south from their childhood, but most on the barge — born in camps in the north — have never seen it.
The two-decade war between southern, ethnic African rebels and the Arab-dominated Islamic government of the north killed over 2 million people, drove some 4 million others from their homes and devastated the south.
This war, separate from the one in Darfur, ended in a 2005 peace deal which set up an autonomous southern government, led by the former rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement. The government is pressing for refugees to come back and rebuild their homeland as well as vote in national elections next year and in a referendum on independence in 2011.
But when this group arrived at their destination, the town of Malakal, in mid-January after a nearly weeklong journey, they found a harsh reality: The devastated south is struggling to absorb its returning people.
The 700-mile journey began with a bus ride from Khartoum to the town of Kosti, where the southbound paved road ends. There the returnees — who all belong to the Shilluk ethnic group — boarded the barges chartered by the Office of International Migration, a body that works with the United Nations.
Hopes for home
The days on the river passed in excited anticipation of a long dreamed-of homeland.
Younger passengers, raised in the slum conditions of the camps, eagerly listened to elders on the barge describing their cattle-raising life in the Malakal area before the war.
"We want the trees, we want the cows, we want our lives back," said Nunu, Achajh's wife. She was nursing her baby, one of more than 100 on board.
"For so many years, we've been surviving in Khartoum with the hope of coming back," said Achajh, whose family fled north during an earlier phase of the war in the 1970s. He sold his belongings to bring his wife and four young children back to the south. He said Khartoum's policies forcing the mainly Christian and animist southerners to speak Arabic and abide by Islamic law prompted him to come home.
"We want our children to speak English and grow up in a country that is their own," he told an Associated Press reporter sailing with the group.
Kids passed the time playing on the upper deck, while women cooked fish on charcoal stoves. The vessel was packed with the limited belongings — the equivalent of about five large boxes each — that each passenger was allowed to bring aboard. The voyage was free of charge.
Life adjusted to the slow, lazy rhythm of the river, a vast spread of water and flatlands with only the occasional cluster of trees or riverside fishing villages of mud huts that go up for a few months between floods. Passengers played dominos, or talked at length about their new lives. Women cooked or tended to children, braided hair, washed clothes.
At sunset, younger people would gather on the upper deck, shush the children romping in piles of inflated life vests, and listen to elders recounting tales of the Shilluk tribe. As the night's cold fell on the barge, families went to sleep on woven mats, 10 to 20 in a cabin, while on the lower deck, girls chanted high-pitched songs and danced in a succession of high, vertical jumps under the attentive gaze of the boys.
Then the barges would tie up for the night, at a village if there was one, otherwise to a tree.
Some 2 million displaced southerners live in camps in northern Sudan, with another 2 million scattered among neighboring countries. Their return is going slower than expected because of refugee worries that war could resume and concerns over the south's dilapidated state. Only 45,000 from camps in northern Sudan have come back in trips organized by the U.N. and other agencies. Tens of thousands are thought to have come back from abroad, but the exact number is not known.
Excitement mounted on the last night when elders pointed to landmarks of approaching Malakal. Women danced and clapped their hands and men chanted traditional songs of homecoming.
But Malakal turned out to be no promised land.
The passengers expected a welcoming committee, but none was there. When a few officials showed up, the returnees learned that plots of land they had been promised by the government weren't yet cleared of mines left by the northern army.
A daylong negotiation followed to persuade the passengers to get off the barge. A group of the returnees came ashore and argued with the officials. Some accused the government of seeking to sell their plots of land for profit. U.N. officials reassured them that Malakal is indeed short on land because of the mines, which could take months to clear.
Tempers ran high as returnees' expectations met the reality of southerners who remained during years of war — some of whom view the refugees as privileged for the safety and aid they received in their camps.
"I spent 21 years in the bush fighting for their freedom. How can they arrive here and complain?" said Dok Gok, Malakal's deputy governor. He had cut short a meeting with the barge passengers when they demanded a school, a hospital and a camp to wait in until land was cleared.
Sarah Nyanath, from the Social Welfare Ministry, told the returnees they could "go back north" if they weren't happy.
"They've been treated like children, but here we are adults," she said, telling the returnees she herself doesn't have her own mud hut and has to stay with relatives. The returnees, she said, should do the same.
Malakal's population has doubled to more than 150,000 since the peace deal as southerners return. Many squeeze in with relatives — but barely a quarter of residents have running water or electricity.
'Wanted to die where I was born'
Despite over $1 billion in aid and a share of Sudan's oil revenues, southern Sudan has seen little development. The region's capital, Juba, doesn't even have a paved road from the airport. There are frequent accusations of corruption among the ruling SPLM, and complaints that the rebels-turned-civil servants lack governing skills.
Among the crowd gathered on the shore were passengers from a previous IOM barge trip in December. They said they felt so unwelcome in Malakal they were ready to go back.
"For years we survived in Khartoum, but it's even harder here," said Lucia Peter, a 45-year-old widow with five children. "If I had the money, I'd go back," she said.
Finally, a local Shilluk politician boarded the barge to convince the returnees to disembark. He made vague promises to follow up on the land issue and offered a cow from his herd to be roasted as a gesture of welcome.
Eventually, the refugees rushed out, carrying their belongings and greeting relatives.
Elderly Banda Amum walked alone down the wobbly plank. His entire family was killed in the war, except his wife, who he said was too weak to accompany him back.
"Now I am old, I have nothing left to wish for," Amum said, his watery eyes gazing at the lush trees in Malakal. "I just wanted to die where I was born."