Addis Ababa- Ethiopia (PANA) -- A group of 500 Sudanese, more than half of whom were born in exile, have started trekking to their home country from Ethiopia under a voluntary repatriation programme, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said here Thursday.
The group left the western Ethiopian camp of Bonga on Wednesday when the operation got underway, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
UNHCR officials said it would take this batch of returnees three nights to cover a journey of 820km before crossing the border into South Sudan at Kurumuk on the fourth day.
Their final destinations are Chali El Fiel and Nyille villages in the Blue Nile State of South Sudan.
"We had to take this long and apparently tiring route because the other options are either not suitable or unsafe, or both," said Wella Kouyou, head of UNHCR's sub-office in Gambella Region.
"They spend the three nights in way-stations which we have set up inside Ethiopia at an average distance of 270km," he added.
Three more convoys of 500 persons each would be assisted to return to Sudan over the next two weeks, UNHCR said.
Before the rains started in May this year UNHCR had assisted the return of more than 2,500 Sudanese refugees from Bonga and Sherkole camps, located in western Ethiopia.
Most of the Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia have been in exile since 1987.
Of the group now on the road, 311 are aged 18 years and below.
UNHCR, in collaboration with IOM and the government of Ethiopia, expects to assist the return of more than 11,000 Sudanese refugees over the next six months, said Ilunga Ngandu, UNHCR's Regional Liaison Representative for Africa.
"Subject to the availability of adequate funding, logistical preparedness, as well as absorption capacity in South Sudan we ultimately expect to help return the nearly 70,000 Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia during 2007/2008," Ngandu added.
Before leaving Bonga, a camp of 17,000 refugees, the returnees received a re-integration package consisting of blankets, jerry cans, sleeping mats, a water filter and a sanitary kit for girls and women.
Additional supplies of soap, plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, plastic buckets and kitchen utensils will be distributed to the returnees before they cross the border into Sudan.
UNHCR officials said the supplies have been stockpiled at Kurmuk in order to reduce the load carried by returnees from Bonga.
Upon arrival in Sudan, the returnees will receive a reintegration package of food rations for a three-month period, seeds and agricultural implements provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement reached between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in January 2005 ended Africa's longest war in South Sudan, thus enabling thousands of people who had fled to neighbouring countries to return home.
UNHCR, together with other UN agencies and partner NGOs, has been struggling to lay the ground inside Sudan to receive the returnees.
Presently, Ethiopia hosts close to 69,000 Sudanese refugees in five camps -- Bonga, Fugnido, Dimma, Sherkole and Yarenja.
In addition, the country provides asylum to 16,387 and 12,444 refugees from Somalia and Eritrea respectively.
Some 700 other refugees from 13 different countries also live in Ethiopia.