Thirteen years after they were separated by the war in southern Sudan, Paul Baleo has found his parents and his brother. All that time they were living just 150 miles away.
“When we met, there was no talking. It was only tears and tears. Tears kept on rolling,” the 20-year-old mechanic said.
All across southern Sudan people are on the move now that peace has made it possible for them travel freely again. Many are searching for relatives they lost touch with during the 21-year war, which officially ended last month with the ratification of a Jan. 9 accord between the government and separatist rebels.
“I can tell you that there are many people now ... moving in all directions. Everybody wants to find their relatives,” Baleo said.
The conflict set the Arab-influenced, Muslim north against the black African, heavily Christian south. Some two million people died — mainly from war-induced famine and disease. Millions more were forced to flee their homes — chaotic scenes that tore apart countless families.
Baleo was just 6 when fighting broke out around his hometown of Tombura, near the Central African Republic Border. His mother, father and brother disappeared, and he was left in Tombura with his grandmother.
Braving landmines, shells
The years went by; Baleo’s grandmother died. Still the war dragged on. Many thought it would never end and were wary even after the January peace deal, which provides for a power-sharing government and autonomy in the south.
But slowly, people began to move about, braving land mines and unexploded grenades and shells. Travelers arriving in Tombura told Baleo that his family was 150 miles away in Wau — and that his mother was looking for him.
“I took my chances and moved from Tombura,” he said. “I moved with no food. I walked at daytime and slept in the evenings. I ate mango and wild plants. I just kept on walking until I reached Wau.”
The journey last month took six days, he said. When he reached the outskirts of Wau, he was met by local residents who, in the tradition of rural Sudan, questioned him about his tribe.
Baleo’s family are members of the Zande tribe, so they stood out in an area where most people are Balanda. Soon, Baleo was being directed to the home of his uncle, where his immediate family had been living since fleeing Tombura.
“We did not recognize each other at first. It had been such a long time,” Baleo said. Baleo plans to stay in Wau, where he has found a job in a garage.
'Peace is good'
Government and U.N. officials have no numbers but say many southerners appear to be on the move.
With all the flux in population, Joanna VanGerpen, a UNICEF official organizing a polio vaccination campaign in the south, said villages should not wait to begin to rebuild “so that when people come they will find at least the basic services.”
Susana John, 22, and her 4-year-old daughter also made the dusty journey from Tombura to Wau, looking for relatives.
John had moved to Tombura from Raja, northwest of Wau, after her husband was killed in fighting there in September 2001. In Tombura, controlled by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army, she was able to find work on farms.
“Peace is good. It saved me from a place I did not choose, and I am going home. You never feel tired when going home,” she said.