Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation

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1972 - 1973

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Programme Officer, UNHCR, Juba, Sudan 1972-1973

• Long brutal Civil War
• Hundreds of thousands killed
• 250,000 refugees in neighbouring countries
• 600,000 internally displaced
• 200,000 refugees repatriated and reintegrated or resettled

Prevailing Situation in the Sudan in early Seventies

1. Independence came to the Sudan in 1956 over the strong objection of the Southern Sudanese who wanted an interim period of preparation in education, public service and democracy under the British before deciding on their future. The mutiny by Sudan Defence Force (SDF) in August1955 in Torit, Equatoria Province, was the climax of the resentment of frustrated Southerners to what they perceived to be a total northern domination of all facets of life. The period 1956-1972 was marked by severe repression of the Southern Christians and animists by successive northern governments who viewed them as harbouring secessionist ambitions. Indiscriminate killings, maiming and massive displacements became the order of the day. Hundreds of thousands were killed and 250,000 fled and became refugees in the neighbouring countries of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Central African Republic (CAR) and Zaire. Over 600,000 helpless victims were internally displaced and forced to eke out a living in squalid inhuman conditions.

2. The armed Southern struggle against the North grew into a formidable movement known popularly as Anya Anya (Snake Venom) led by a young army Officer Lt Joseph Lagu, later to become a general, who had deserted the Northern army. The long guerrilla warfare that lasted for 17 years brought the case of the Southern Sudan forcefully to the attention of the world. Nevertheless, the devastating effects of the war and the severe northern suppression created havoc and immeasurable suffering for the population. The situation was exacerbated by the world looking the other way and the unrelenting Civil War became better known as “The Forgotten War".

3. It was only the successful conclusion of the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement between the North and South in February 1972 in the Ethiopian capital, under the aegis of Emperor Haile Selassie, that brought a cessation of hostilities and peace to the Sudan. The South was granted Regional Autonomy and a highly respected Southern Lawyer Abel Alier became the first President of Southern Sudan. General Joseph Lagu assumed the command of the integrated division of the Sudan Army based in the South with its Headquarters in Juba. The country turned now to the challenging task of receiving back millions of refugees and embarking on the reconstruction and development of the Southern Sudan. The international community led by UNHCR came readily to the assistance and support of the fledgling region.


4. At the young age of 24, hardly three years since he first joined UNHCR, Sergio Vieira de Mello was reassigned from Dhâkâ, Bangladesh and posted to Juba, Southern Sudan. His assignment coincided with the coming into force of the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement. The then High Commissioner for Refugees Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, had played a significant role from behind the scene in the conclusion of the Peace Agreement and had therefore a vested interest in the successful repatriation and resettlement of the refugees. It was therefore no accident that the High Commissioner ensured that the Organization's best young talents represented by Sergio, formed the backbone of UNHCR's dedicated core staff to tackle the challenging assignment.

5. His previous assignment in Bangladesh where UNHCR helped resettle a massive number of returnees, prepared Sergio well for his new responsibilities. Under the overall management of Thomas Jamieson, and supported by then Programme Officer Catherine Bertrand in Geneva, he operated from the UNHCR Sub-Office in Juba as his base. From this vantage point, Sergio oversaw the distribution of food, clothing, medical supplies and building materials to the returnees working closely with the other collaborating partners. Receiving, transporting and repatriating 200,000 refugees to their villages and communities of origin was a major part of Sergio's responsibilities. Overall 1,190,320 people, including those internally displaced, emerged from the bush and returned to their original homes. He fulfilled these responsibilities brilliantly, gaining appreciation and praise from his peers and superiors alike. Above all, his great gift for dialogue and reconciliation found ample expression in his daily interactions with the restive returnees who came from diverse background and tribal affiliations. Although their expectations were sometimes unrealistic they could easily identify with and looked up to Sergio as the one who built understanding and consensus through dialogue and solved their problems.

6. Transportation and logistics problems were major hurdles to UNHCR carrying out its enormous tasks of repatriating the returnees. River transport from the North to the South was slow. Within the South itself, roads were unusable either because of rains or long disuse. The most challenging feat was the transportation of people especially returnees and goods arriving from Uganda and Kenya across the Nile into Juba. This bottleneck was broken when the Netherlands contributed a prefabricated bridge to UNHCR's programme for Southern Sudan. It required a work of colossal engineering feat to transport the components of the bridge to Juba and re-assemble it across the Nile. The bridge not only replaced the antiquated ferry but to this day remains the most vital link of Southern Sudan to East Africa. Sergio and his colleagues must be complimented for their foresight in negotiating the donation and construction of this key bridge across the Nile, at Juba.

7. Sergio left Juba and Sudan in June 1973 after UNHCR had assisted the Regional Government of Southern Sudan to repatriate and reintegrate 200,000 returnees and 600,000 IDPs, paving the way for recovery, reconstruction and development. Of lasting legacy to the people of Southern Sudan was UNHCR's decision to go beyond its relief mandate for refugees to rebuild hospitals, schools, roads and bridges and revive agriculture. Sergio was very much behind these advanced thinking and creative policy. To his credit, Sergio not only discharged his UNHCR responsibilities with distinction but also left behind the lasting memory of a dedicated young man driven by the passion for dialogue and reconciliation.




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