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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 14:04 GMT
Sudan: Starting from scratch
By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Rumbek, southern Sudan

Noura Sawa Abu is learning how to farm again, after spending 16 years cleaning homes and brewing illegal alcohol in Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

Noura Sawa Abu and One o'clock
Noura Sawa Abu has not told One O'Clock what happened to his parents
She arrived back in Abarko, a village in southern Sudan, 18 months ago - in time to see the signing of a deal to end the 21 years of civil war, which she had fled, and which had killed her husband.

She spent months on the road in buses and on foot, along with five of her nine children.

By the time Noura arrived at her destination, she was looking after six children.

"It was the middle of the day and we were travelling south from Abyei when we saw Muharaleen Arab raiders ahead of us - we'd heard that they'd been attacking southerners," she said. "I ran to hide but heard a baby crying."

A small boy was lying in the grass and Noura instinctively picked him up and put him to her breast.

She has been caring for him ever since - she called him "One O'Clock" after the time of day when she found him.

Uncertain future

Earlier this month Sudan celebrated 50 years of independence but conflict and famine have never been far away.

They probably will be able to meet their food needs - but no one can tell you when that will be
Tobias Ogada, WFP

Although the war between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist south has now ended, aid agencies expect to feed some 6m people this year in Sudan - more than in any other country.

Violence continues in parts of the south - as Noura and One O'Clock can testify. "Since finding the boy I've been looking for his parents," Noura explains. "But no-one knows who they are. Perhaps they have been killed by the Muharaleen."

Now three years old, One O'Clock is still affected by what happened to him.

Quiet and unsmiling, he clings on to Noura. She still hasn't told him what happened on that road 18 months ago.


"I will look after One O'clock," she says. "In this country we care for each other."

Noura and One O'Clock's home in Abarko is a new settlement for returnees - 154 mud huts built around a water pump.

But her first harvest failed and when I met her, One O'Clock had gone into the bush, looking for food to eat.

Tools distributed

The challenge for aid agencies and the south's new government is to stop these returnees simply adding to the two million southerners already being fed by a huge international operation.

Hand tools and seeds have been distributed - but the crops failed. Many of the returnees don't know how to farm and last year's rains stopped early.

Mary Juma is ploughing her plot
Farmers in southern Sudan use hand tools

"In the long term, with assistance they will be able to resettle, to cultivate and probably they will be able to meet their food needs," said Tobias Ogada of the United Nations World Food Programme.

"But no-one can tell you definitely when that will be."

Violence, insecurity and large population movements are not conditions which encourage people to farm.

The nearest big town is Rumbek, a dry and dusty place, that last year briefly served as the former rebels' interim capital.

The large, newly arrived aid worker population stay in luxury accommodation - next to the simple thatched mud huts of its long-term residents.

The failure of the rains may seem like the problem to Noura but the roots of her difficulties lie much deeper.

Ox-drawn carts

Southern Sudanese agriculture is among the most basic in the world.

Landmines have made parts of southern Sudan off-limits but where farming is taking place, it is on a very small scale with most people cultivating with a simple hand tool called a "maloda".

Young boy working the camp's water pump
The Abarko returnee camp is built around the water pump
"We're running an enlightenment campaign," said a government aid official.

"We are trying to encourage people to use an ox-drawn plough and become progressive farmers."

It hardly seems like a step into the 21st Century but switching from hand tools to using an ox can dramatically transform the amount of land that can be farmed.

If farmers began to produce more than for their immediate needs - then they would not be so vulnerable to poor rainfall.

Already one of the poorest places on earth - southern Sudan's immediate challenge as people return is simply to maintain its meagre standard of living.

Despite her initial problems, Noura is not downhearted. "It's great to be back," she says.

But this optimism could wear off if the greater stability and huge inflow of aid money do not translate into higher living standards.


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