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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Long Trek Home to a New Land

Some of Africa's oldest refugees--those who fled Eritrea for Sudan four decades ago--are returning with children who have never seen their parents' native soil.

July 25, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ABOARD THE AL AMIN EXPRESS, Sudan-Eritrea border--After living their entire lives in a refugee camp in the baking desert plains of eastern Sudan, the Abdel-Rahman children are going to a homeland they've never known.

A rickety red bus, emblazoned with the name Al Amin Express, is taking the family to a new life across the border in Eritrea, a small country on the Red Sea.

Like other Eritrean refugees who are making the journey with them, the Abdel-Rahmans have no idea what awaits them, except uncertainty.

But 13-year-old Neima, despite battling a bout of malaria and leaving all her friends behind, says she can't wait to see her parents' native land. Her brother Elkhair, 23, says he wants to help the family erect a new mud hut before pursuing his goal of becoming a doctor. His 7-year-old sister, Marwa, wearing her special pink lace dress, bounces on her father's knee. This is the most exciting excursion of her life, she says.

In the second row of seats in the clattering bus, Abdel-Rahman Mohammed and his wife, Fatma, seem pensive. They are worried about Hanan, the 21-year-old daughter they left behind in Sudan.

But the 65-year-old Abdel-Rahman has made his decision to return to his country, and he's sticking to it. The couple and eight of their children are making the trip with 611 other Eritreans in a convoy of 60 buses and trucks.

Some of the Abdel-Rahmans' fellow travelers are Africa's oldest refugees. They've been living in Sudan since the early 1960s, when Ethiopia's then-emperor, Haile Selassie, annexed Eritrea, a former Italian colony, sparking a 30-year conflict.

Now the refugees are desperately trying to beat a deadline. Two months ago, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees declared that it was ending refugee status for Eritreans in Sudan and elsewhere Dec. 31. The agency said the Eritreans no longer needed protection because their country had ended its struggle with Ethiopia in 1991 and attained independence two years later. A later border war ended with a peace treaty in 2000.

So the Abdel-Rahmans have boarded the Al Amin Express, a 50-year-old British-made Bedford bus with no air conditioning. Part of the welding that holds the dashboard to the front of the vehicle has come loose, making the bus clatter and dance even at the slowest speed.

Someone appears to have tossed a rock at the windshield in the spot exactly in the driver's line of vision. The driver, a south Sudanese from the Dinka tribe wearing a lily-white robe known as a galabia, sometimes has to dip his head from side to side to look around the cracks for oncoming traffic.

Fleeing to Sudan

Sudan has been home for Abdel-Rahman Mohammed since 1974, the year he and Fatma fled with their two babies from their small town near the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Abdel-Rahman had heard that Emperor Selassie's troops were slaughtering Eritreans, particularly Muslims like him, so one night he and his family made the 15-hour journey to Sudan, where he joined hundreds of thousands of other Eritrean refugees crammed into U.N. refugee camps there.

The United Nations had opened a single camp in 1967, but it soon established about 20 more that stretch over an area of eastern Sudan larger than Orange County.

The camps are a sea of tukuls--tiny round mud huts covered with grass roofs--arranged in cookie-cutter uniformity. Tukuls are the only respite from the searing Sudanese sun that on many days sends temperatures soaring to a paralyzing 125 degrees.

Over the years, the refugees cut down virtually all the trees around the camps to support their tukuls and use as firewood. Stripped bare of vegetation, the camps are badlands, exposed to the winds called mahboob that periodically rip through, stirring up dust devils and blasting the huts with ashen sand.

The small clump of bottle-brush trees that Abdel-Rahman planted in his frontyard stand like lonesome sentinels.

Despite the desolate setting of the Shagarab camp where he lived for 28 years, Abdel-Rahman considered it his home. It was the place where he welcomed nine children into the world, where he celebrated four of their weddings and where he was introduced to his first grandchild. It was where he provided for his family by working as a sanitation worker in his neighborhood.

And by most accounts, the Sudanese were gracious hosts. They permitted the refugees to cultivate nearby land and, unlike other countries that restrict refugees' movement, allowed them to live in urban areas and attend Sudanese universities.

Refugee camps like those that dot eastern Sudan have become permanent fixtures on Africa's landscape. U.N. officials estimate that 13 million Africans are refugees or have been displaced within their own countries by long-running conflicts such as the ones in Eritrea, Angola, Congo and Sudan.

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