Call to South Sudan Refugees: 'Come Home, We Need You'

Article Summary
South Sudan's Minister of Agriculture visited Israel May 15 with a message for refugees to come home. The trip coincided with one of the tougher discussions in Israel about whether to detain refugees. Yuval Goren talks to Dr. Betty Achan Ogwaro.

Ten months after declaring independence, South Sudan is now dealing with major poverty, a lack of basic infrastructure and instability on its northern border. Despite the celebratory declaration surrounding the establishment of the state and the agreement signed to prevent war, battles between South Sudan and Sudan continue to this day over disagreements about the oil fields on South Sudan’s territory. The struggles are preventing the government from attracting foreign investors to take part in the development of the young country.

The Minister of Agriculture of South Sudan, Betty Achan Ogwaro, is visited Israel for the first time May 15. Among other goals, she hopes to advance cooperation with Israeli entrepreneurs in agriculture and infrastructure, and to learn about Israeli technological developments that could assist in the development of business and agriculture in her country.

Betty Achan Ogwaro, 10 months after the establishment of the state, what is the situation in South Sudan?

“Many aspects, including infrastructure, roads, the healthcare system, education and agriculture in South Sudan are just starting out. While there is an area in the north of the country that is more developed, most of the country is still in a complex situation. We were at war our entire lives, and therefore we have a lot of work to do. For example, the farmers that grow different crops are having a hard time finding a place today to store their goods, and there’s still no suitable road infrastructure on which to transfer goods to markets to the big cities. So we are presently paving roads and regulating the transportation infrastructure.”

Almost the entire infrastructure in the country was destroyed during the war with Sudan. Is the government of South Sudan able to rehabilitate the country on its own?

“We have no choice, the government needs to invest in infrastructure and build the country for its citizens, through, among other means, assistance from other countries like Israel, which is helping us with technological development, business ventures and the construction of infrastructure. The problem is that there is presently a serious disagreement on the oil that is in our territory, because the government of Sudan demands we pay an unreasonable sum to transfer the pipe on its territory, such that the production of oil has stopped, which is very difficult on us.”

There are many citizens of South Sudan and Sudan who came here to seek asylum residing in Israel. Many claim that the security situation in South Sudan and the lack of health care, education and other forms of infrastructure will place them at risk. Are they correct?

“Along the northern border with Sudan, planes are bombing the areas of our oil fields, and harming the population. On all other matters, you must remember that we established a state that came out of an ongoing war nine months ago. Until then there were no schools, no development, no real agriculture, and nine months isn’t enough to rebuild everything. We have few hospitals and schools are still not developed. We started the work, but we have a lot more to do.”

So can they go back to their country?

“We very much want them to return, the country needs them. Moreover, we hope that they have obtained skills or that they obtained them before they return, to lend themselves to building our country. It’s true that someone who lived in the north of South Sudan cannot presently return to his home, because the Sudanese army is bombing that area, but he certainly can to the rest of the country. I know that last year, refugees returned to South Sudan from many countries in the world, to which they had escaped during the years of fighting.”

Achan Ogwaro came to Israel at the initiative of the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli company Indigroup, which operates in South Sudan to develop infrastructure and build agricultural models on the basis of Israeli technologies. She visited the Agritech exhibition May 15, where she surveyed Israeli agricultural developments and eventually meet with representatives of the South Sudanese community in Israel.

What are you intending to tell the South Sudanese citizens living here?

“I’ll tell them, ‘Come home, we need you.’ Someone who escaped during the war may not find his home, but his land hasn’t been taken by anyone. Every South Sudanese citizen will return to the place from which he left, to Israel or to any other country, back to his family that remains there. It’s true, they’ll start from zero, but this is their home. I know that quite a few Sudanese citizens who cannot return to their country, especially to Darfur where there is still a war going on, returned to South Sudan in the last few months. I tell others who are still here, you can come to us. We will treat them like brothers, we extend our hands to them, as long as they respect our laws.”

What do you think about the intention of the state to transfer many refugees to a detention facility in the south, where they will be held until they are sent to their country?

“I think that responsible bodies need to check every person who arrives individually, because each person who escaped his home did so as a result of certain circumstances. I hope that the government of Israel supports these people when they’re here, and it must remember that this is temporary. I am sure that as soon as our country develops, everyone will return. I have no doubt about it. But I think that in light of our friendship with Israel, the government doesn’t need to put the refugees in jail, unless of course they have violated the law. You need to let them work and live in dignity, and treat them with sensitivity. They left their homes during the war, and are waiting to get back to them.”

Age: 54

Marital status: Married

Prior titles: Member of Sudanese parliament from 2005. She was appointed by the president of South Sudan to serve as Agriculture Minister upon the declaration of the new state last July.  

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