Yei was South Sudan’s second biggest town before the civil war forced people out of the country in 2016. Three years later, conditions in Uganda’s refugee settlements and a hope of peace push people to return.
Finn Church Aid’s (FCA) operations in South Sudan expand into the country’s war-torn Equatoria region. Yei town is the main centre of Yei River County, which was heavily affected by fighting since 2016.
Yei used to be an important trading point and the main food supply for the capital Juba as well as other parts of the country, says FCA’s Livelihoods Officer David Oliver Taban, who heads the new field office.
The civil war forced people to abandon their homes and leave their farms to wither. However, this year has seen a stable improvement in the security situation and many have returned to assess the situation.
“They find that all their property is destroyed or looted, and they need support for rebuilding their lives when they decide to stay”, Taban says.
Situation still unpredictable, repatriation a private decision
A careful optimism after the peace deal signed in September 2018 attracts many returnees. On the other hand, many feel that they do not have a choice due to a severely underfunded humanitarian response in Uganda. The returnees mention cuts in food rations and lack of opportunities for secondary education.
“These are people who used to farm vast swathes of land and feed the entire country. The land given for cultivation in Uganda is very limited, and other job opportunities are scarce”, Taban says.
Yei’s town centre has seen a stable increase in business. Maize and vegetables are widely cultivated, and the government says the roads are safe for transporting goods from an increasing number of locations, including Juba.
Farming is however still limited to the immediate proximity of the town. Armed groups who did not sign the peace deal are still at large in the surrounding villages, and violent incidents and robberies are still reported. UNHCR does not deem repatriation from Uganda safe because of these risks.
FCA’s Humanitarian Coordinator Moses Habib calls the security situation unpredictable.
“The return to Yei is a private decision, but as FCA, we need to be where the humanitarian needs are. We expect people to start returning in greater numbers by the end of the year”, Habib says.
FCA’s operations expected to expand rapidly
FCA started its first project in Yei in 2017, when 1,620 families received cash support funded by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The beneficiaries bought food from the market and maintained businesses.
A new phase of cash distribution starts in August with funding from the Icelandic Church Aid, targeting a thousand families. This support can help families resettle, invest in businesses and cultivate. FCA selects the most vulnerable families carefully in a process that targets primarily women-headed households.
“The support is unconditional, which allows returnees to address their most pressing needs, which usually involve feeding their families, rebuilding their houses, cultivating and starting businesses”, Habib says.
“We expect to expand our operations rapidly into other areas, like livelihoods and peace building. The community needs reconciliation after a conflict that has pitted many against each other.”