The meeting place of the Blue and White Niles, Khartoum, derives from two different linguistic traditions. From Dinka, part of the Nilotic dialect cluster, “khar” are the branches of a river, and “toum” means meet. In Arabic, a Semitic language, “khartoum” is the trunk of an elephant. This convergence, known as the longest kiss in history, fuses what exists with those who have existed here.
Half an hour outside of the capital, far from the banks of the river, are the settlements of Jabrona, Mayo, and Soba. There are people here who just sit and wait. Under blue tarps, they take shelter from the scorching sun eager to set flesh smoldering – the way red-hot coals glow in the shishas of smokey men tucked away in back alleys, hidden from the morality police.
Skeletal figures, sunken eyed emerge from modernity’s art of plastic chairs, tables, and beds amassed together by rope and protected from the dust by blue tarp. This is where they sit and wait, where they have sat and waited since last November. Last November was when they first received word from their “chiefs” or “sultans” to prepare for an organized exodus to South Sudan. It is now March.
Power lines stopped snaking alongside the road long ago. Boys on donkey carts deliver water to people’s houses, at least for those who have houses. There are tall Dinka men missing their front teeth, Nubans from South Kordofan with their squashed noses and high cheekbones, and lanky, slit-eyed Darfuris adorned in abayas. Almost every group that the government has fought, and who has fought the government, has found its way here.
A family of elders from Warrap have given up their home and their land in preparation to travel south. They squat on someone else’s land fearing everyday, that today, they will be thrown off the cracked, barren earth.
The South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (SSRRC), responsible for transporting the returnees is currently negotiating with international agencies and embassies over money in the donor basket fund. Already contributed funds have disappeared plagued by a hushed up scandal. The government in Khartoum has made vague promises of assistance to transport people as far the border, but wants nothing to do with the whole exercise.
Every so often, Bashir scapegoats the Southerners to rile the sodden spirits of the rest of the country. Those who do not “return” to the South will enjoy no rights of citizenship, jobs, or benefits after July 9th. For many Sudanese classified as Southerners, the term returnee is problematic. Their supposed return home may in fact be their first trip to South Sudan. For those born in the North, they have known no other home.
Some of the state branches of the SSRRC responsible for receiving the returnees upon their arrival in South Sudan have flatly informed international agencies that the returnees are not their problem. They are the responsibility of the international community. South Sudan’s government at all levels will continue this trend of disowning responsibility for its people, whether returnees or IDPs.
Yet, from the streets of Khartoum, the presence of Southerners has still quietly disappeared as July approaches. Better off returnees have started to ship their families and belongings back on the numerous flights traversing between Khartoum and Juba each day. Airfares have hiked up, and tickets that could once be purchased days before, must now be bought weeks in advance. Children attired in their Sunday best – frocks of frilled lace and dapper suits – bumble along between the suitcases and plastic carrying bags plastered with images of Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and President Obama.
Those with meager resources, but intent and lucky enough have made it to the river port city of Kosti, crowd into transit centers. From here, the International Organization for Migration operates cavernous, rusted barges in conditions worse off than Gordon Kitchener’s. In the next week, seven barges – three packed with human cargo and four with material belongings – and donkeys – will begin the journey southward on the White Nile, leaving behind forever the longest kiss in history.