A long journey home: UNHCR helps an internally displaced man to re-unite with the family after 30 years
Sitting in front of his paternal house in a wheelchair, Zaki, a 43-year old man displaced during the conflict in South Sudan, nervously lights up a cigarette to tame his excitement. After 30 years he is finally home, reunited with his family in Wau town which is in Western Bahr-el-Ghazal state, South Sudan.
Zaki’s story of displacement
His journey back home was long and filled with tragic episodes where he was hiding for fear of being killed by armed people, starving because there was not enough food to eat, abandoned by everyone because he has a disability and even for friendly neighbours, who like him were struggling to survive, was a burden they could not afford.
“I am 43 but I feel like I am a 90-year old man, because it feels like I have seen everything in life and nothing surprises or moves me anymore,” Zaki confesses as he is heading to the airport to fly to Wau, where he will finally meet his aunt after 30 years.
Zaki left his family home in Wau when he was 12 to try his luck as an assistant truck driver in Al Obaid city of Sudan. Following the conflict between the North and South Sudan and independence of South Sudan in 2011, Zaki returned to Melut town in South Sudan. He worked here as a shoemaker until the civil war broke out in the world’s youngest nation in 2013, drastically changing his and his family’s life and pushing everyone to different corners of the county. Separated from his family, Zaki who by that time had already developed a disability due to rheumatism, was a witness of atrocities perpetrated by armed men.
“I survived by a mere chance. When armed people came to Melut in 2015, I was alone at home. I could not run or escape due to my disability. All I could do is sit in the corner and wait for my time to come, “ says Zaki in a trembling voice, “but when the door to my house opened, I heard someone calling out my name. It was a friend of mine who was with the government forces at that time. He knew I was here, so he took me to the army barracks to be safe.”
As the government forces were retreating, the future of Zaki as well as other remaining in Melut was becoming bleak and uncertain. “A friend of mine told me they are leaving the town and that I would be more safe in the United Nations Protection of Civilians (POC) site,“ Zaki continued, “so, this is how I ended up there.”
Zaki has been living in the POC site along with over 500 other internally displaced persons since 2015. Overcrowded, with crumbling shelters and without proper water and sanitation facilities, this camp for internally displaced persons was hard to endure even for physically able men, let alone a man with a disability, who did not have any support to move around. “I got used to drag my legs and move using my two hands only, “ Zaki laughs, saying he was crawling, manoeuvring in between shelters to reach certain facilities. “People were good in the camp and the UNHCR and other organisations were giving a lot of support, even when I needed to cater for my basic needs such as going to a toilet or taking a bath.”
In December 2017, UN Refugee Agency and UNMISS along with other humanitarian partners reinvigorated efforts to find solutions for the internally displaced persons living in POC sites. Following a rigorous work and assessments that saw active involvement of IDPs themselves, over 500 of the Melut POC site inhabitants went back to their homes or places of their choice, resulting in a closure of the site. However, Zaki’s case was special as it required more efforts and work to be done to trace his family.
“UNHCR team deployed in Melut for almost one and a half months to carry out all assessments was instrumental in tracing Zaki’s family and coordinating his reunification along with the UNHCR field office in Wau,“ UNHCR Community-Based Protection Associate Protection Mary Donya says, “we were extremely relieved when we learned about his aunt in Wau.”
A twist of life
Yet the life held in store another trial for both Zaki and UNHCR. Once Zaki arrived in Wau UNHCR team had to take him to another IDP settlement as it turned out that his aunt refused to take him. “We are frustrated because we hoped Zaki could go and live with his aunt and be surrounded by his family, but unfortunately we have to place him in another IDP camp for the time being and continue looking for better solutions for him,” James Luol, UNHCR Protection Associate in Wau said.
Zaki did not show any signs of frustration or despair with the perspective of continuing his lonely life in yet another camp. He was sitting there in the middle of one of Wau’s IDP settlements, his eyes looking into a distance.
The looming reality of a miserable life in yet another camp, however, did not last long. In a few minutes, people living in the IDP camp started gathering around Zaki and asking him questions in a language that Zaki has not spoken for 30 years and has almost forgotten. One could not fail to notice how a sparkle run through Zaki’s eyes when he was greeted by his tribesmen in his own language.
However, what happened in the next few moments was totally unexpected and came as a miraculous surprise for both Zaki and UNHCR. “I know you, you are Zaki, and I am your brother-in-law,” a middle-aged man said “your father is alive and your other aunt is also here.” In a matter of seconds, UNHCR staff jumped into a car and rushed to bring Zaki’s father and his aunt to the camp.
Re-uniting with the family after 30 years
While waiting for the father and the aunt to arrive, more and more relatives of Zaki’s big family and childhood friends started to recognize him. “Zaki was a good football player. I used to watch him playing football back in those days and wanted to be like him,“ a 32-year old Murad Sisto Isshak who is working for a local NGO said, admitting that he did not expect Zaki to be alive.
Zaki’s meeting with his father and aunt after 30 years made him and others who were present at the scene burst into tears. “I thought my son was dead! Last time I saw him he was a teenager,” a 64-year old Sebit, Zaki’s father and a local policeman said, tears running down his cheeks. “Don’t cry my son, you are home now and we will not let you go anywhere,” his aunt Leyla Benoro said, patting crying Zaki on his shoulder in an attempt to calm him down.
“I forgot what is care and love of a family and I still can’t believe this is happening to me after 30 years,“ Zaki was saying, crying on the shoulder of his father. “You don’t know what I have been through, look at me I am in a wheelchair,” Zaki continued as his father and aunt were trying to soothe him.
Taken home on the same day by his father and aunt, Zaki is now living with his family full of hope that the life will now be better for him. UNHCR and local partners in Wau are working to make sure Zaki does not go back to the habit of drinking alcohol that he often used to do back in Melut. In addition to psycho-social support, UNHCR is now trying to help Zaki and his family to earn money through making shoes out of disposed tyres. “It will take time for Zaki to adjust and get back to a normal life. The most important thing is that he is home and with his family,” James Luol, UNHCR Protection Associate said, adding that UNHCR will continue to follow up on Zaki’s situation to ensure his re-integration goes on smoothly.
2 million IDPs in South Sudan still waiting to return home or safe places
In December 2017 UNHCR together with partners helped over 700 people like Zaki to return home or places of their choice. “It is an important protection achievement as working closely with communities and our partners we could finally find a solution to a protracted displacement that was also in the best interest of the internally displaced women, men and children, UNHCR Representative in South Sudan Johann Siffointe said. “It demonstrates how concerted efforts as well as inclusion of displaced persons in every step of the process can lead to a highly rewarding outcome. It is impossible to have a normal life in a camp environment.”
While Zaki’s case turned out to be a “happy-end” story, almost 2 million IDPs in South Sudan, including over 200,000 living in 6 UNMISS Protection of Civilians sites, are desperately waiting for the time when they can go home or places, where they can live in safety and dignity.