After days without food, hearing bombs raining down on neighboring buildings, Abraham M. Luk, his wife and four South Sudanese colleagues fled Khartoum on foot. On April 21, while fighting raged between the Sudanese army (FAS) and the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (FSR), they managed, after eight hours of walking, to reach Djebel-Aulia, about forty kilometers from the Sudanese capital. The bus, in which they end up boarding bound for the southern border, is strafed at a checkpoint by FSR militiamen. The driver, panicked, had the bad idea to force the road… No one was injured. Riddled with bullets, the vehicle continues its bumpy descent. It is dark when the small group finally reaches the city of Renk, in South Sudan, then the airport of Paloch, an oil base where a plane chartered by the authorities repatriates them to Juba, the capital.

“There were a lot of people, people who had left like us from the North and who were fighting to get on the plane,” recalls the oil engineer, who was in Khartoum on a business trip when the conflict broke out. Sudan and South Sudan have long formed a single country and, despite the secession ratified in 2011, many South Sudanese still live on the other side of the border. Because they stayed after South Sudan gained independence or fled the civil war that broke out in the world’s youngest state in 2013.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sudan hosts 804,000 South Sudanese refugees. More than a quarter of them live in camps, particularly in White Nile state. The rest are concentrated in Khartoum and major cities, where they are often seen as cheap labor. A population that the war pushes again on the roads.

Between April 15 and 27, around 15,000 people crossed the border from Sudan to Upper Nile State. “At the beginning, the arrivals had means, but as time goes on, they are more vulnerable people, who have made part of the journey on foot and, for some, who have lost family members,” explains Marie- Hélène Verney, representative of the UN agency in South Sudan. According to her, the number of daily arrivals in Renk almost doubled in one day, from 1,900 people on April 26 to 3,700 on April 27.

“New opportunities for the militias”

According to UNHCR estimates, “between 125,000 and 180,000 South Sudanese, and 45,000 Sudanese, will arrive in South Sudan in the next three months”. “We want at all costs to avoid the creation of camps in Renk, because it is an inhospitable area, without infrastructure. It’s really about getting people on their way within 24 to 48 hours of arriving,” said the UNHCR official, who said a Nile river transport plan is under consideration. given the impending rainy season and the impassable state of the roads in the border area.

For the moment, underlines Marie-Hélène Verney, the 300,000 South Sudanese who live in refugee camps in the state of White Nile “have not moved”. But the interruption of UN services in Sudan, and in particular the cessation of food distributions by the World Food Program (WFP), risks hastening their departure. Massive returns that South Sudan is unable to absorb, while 75% of its population still depends on humanitarian aid and the funds allocated to the management of emergencies are already insufficient. Today, only 23% of funding needs for the humanitarian response in 2023 are covered.

The situation is all the more critical as the peace agreement signed in 2018 between the South Sudanese factions remains fragile. While the country is expected to hold the first elections in its history at the end of 2024, “this crisis in Sudan offers a golden chance for the parties to ignore deadlines and drag their feet even further,” warns Edmond Yakani, director of the civil society organization CEPO. The collapse of the Sudanese government robs the peace process of its most influential regional guarantor. No other country in the region can put pressure on the South Sudanese leaders as did Generals Abdel Fattah Al-Bourhane and Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, known as “Hemetti”, respectively leaders of the FAS and paramilitary FSR.

According to Mr. Yakani, it is also not impossible that games of alliance between the camp of Salva Kiir, the South Sudanese president, and that of Riek Machar, his main opponent, and the two parties confronting each other in the Sudan reinvigorate the internal conflicts of South Sudan. “This situation will create new opportunities for the militias, weapons will be in circulation…”, a boon for the “rebel leaders angry with the South Sudanese government”, underlines the human rights defender.

“It’s going to be a disaster”

The war in the North, if it were to last, would also have serious economic consequences for its neighbour, since the two Sudans share the revenues from the oil, exploited in South Sudan and exported by a pipeline across the border to in Port Sudan, on the shores of the Red Sea. An interruption in the transport of crude for security reasons (or maintenance problems) would deprive Juba of almost all of its income.

But there is more urgent. In order to help South Sudanese stuck in Khartoum, a citizens’ appeal was launched on April 21 to raise funds and charter buses. Akoch Akuei Manim, who is coordinating the initiative, is struggling. The carriers, he laments, charge exorbitant prices: it costs 8,000 dollars (7,250 euros) for an 80-seater bus. But “if we don’t bring back as many people as possible in the coming days, it’s going to be a disaster”, fears the activist. The panic at the border has already claimed victims. On April 25, he said, two people were killed in a car crash “caused by speed and dust.”