Every morning, Regina and Sunday Peters walk for two hours in the sweltering sun to get from their village to school in Kodok. After laboring over their lessons, they spend several hours selling milk for the equivalent of US50 cents a bottle before making the long journey home again.
The shy sisters, who are just 10 and 11-years-old, are among thousands of internally displaced South Sudanese returning to their homes in the Upper Nile region, thanks to an improving security situation and the presence of United Nations peacekeepers.
“The security situation is good,” says the Deputy Governor, Nyiker Okoth Awin. “It is improving and, of course, the presence of the UN and, especially the forces, is a stabilizing thing for the people because, when they see some forces around that are neutral, people feel that there is security apart from the security that we provide as a Government.”
Nestled next to the stunning Nile river, on its western bank, Kodok is a priority location for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan because it has previously struggled to access the area from bases across the river and it is a place that many people are choosing to come home to.
About 40 peacekeepers have been based in Kodok for the past seven months. On a visit to the area, the Head of UNMISS and Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer, received a particularly warm welcome from local authorities when he told them that the number of troops will be significantly increased.
“While our presence has been useful so far, we think we can do better,” he said. “I think a stronger presence here will enable us to give some confidence to people that it is safe to return.”
Community member, Mijok Albino, says the situation is pretty dire for those returning who are finding their homes destroyed and a lack of basic services, such as access to clean water, food and healthcare. She’s joined the local women’s initiative for peace in the hope of improving the situation.
“I’m hoping for peace to come and I’m also continuing to pray for the peace to come so I can come back to my home and start my life again in Fashoda state,” she says.
The local governor and the UN head agree that the increased peacekeeping presence will encourage humanitarian agencies to return.
“There is a real need for improved healthcare, improved education facilities, improved water, so once humanitarian agencies feel secure enough to come back here, then we can expand the type of services available for people,” says David Shearer.
Trade is already relatively brisk in the town. Stallholders say more people are arriving every day and they expect the number of returnees to increase significantly during the dry season. They are also looking forward to improved access to the area for their goods when UNMISS engineers rebuild local infrastructure, including roads and bridges and reinforcing the local jetty.
“We just want life to come back to our town,” says business man, Deng Ajok.