An hour before the dawn broke, drums and song coursed through the barge. It had been nearly 20 years since the Bor Dinka fled their war-ravaged homeland by the Nile in southern Sudan and now they were within hours of return. "I feel like the happiest man alive," said 60-year-old Michael Garang. "I didn't feel well in exile and today I'm returning to my land."
Since January 2005, when the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and Khartoum's Arab-dominated government signed the comprehensive peace agreement, many of the four million people displaced by Africa's longest-running conflict have started returning home. Accompanying the 320 Bor Dinka on their journey, the UN humanitarian affairs chief Jan Egeland says that, while the world's gaze has been on Darfur to the west, it is the south that is at a crossroads.
Can the story of happy return be consolidated into a new beginning or will the present optimism turn sour under the weight of unfulfilled promises?
The south is a land for the large part without schools, hospitals, roads, jobs or a working government.
Hopes of a new dawn, fuelled by a wealth of oil and gold, are tempered by fears that outbreaks of militia fighting could spill over into renewed conflict if frustration at the slow pace of change continues to fester.
It wouldn't be the first time. The recent civil war may have started in 1983 but Sudan has been at war for 13 of the last 17 decades. When the SPLA leader and newly appointed Sudanese vice-president John Garang died in a helicopter crash last July it briefly looked like there would be a return to violence but the desire for peace prevailed.
The displaced are now returning from across the south, neighbouring countries, and Khartoum. The barge passengers are part of a clan of 12,000 Bor Dinka whose women, children and elderly men are being ferried from Juba to Bor by the International Migration Organisation. Acrid smoke rises from smoking piles of dung as the barge passes Dinka herding the clan's 300,000 cattle across sometimes hostile territory.
As Bor nears, a pastor holds a service on the stairway; women sing praise to God for returning them from exile. When the barge reaches the dusty epicentre of the civil war there are tearful reunions. "I'm so happy I could fly," says Martha Nyanwut, 35, upon seeing her sister-in-law for the first time in a decade.
Mr Egeland cautions that after supporting the region through years of emergency relief, the international community should not "falter at the last hurdle".
Recent violence has included the deaths of two UN staff at the hands of bandits and the shooting of two UN peacekeepers by Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army. "There is nothing more dangerous than young men with no jobs and a gun," said Mr Egeland. "With nearly two million dead, this has been, together with the war in the Congo, the worst conflict of our generation. It is vital we cement the peace. With no money, all this will collapse."
Donor countries have funded less than one fifth of this year's UN south Sudan budget. Development workers say that what is needed is not so much reconstruction as construction. One returnee, Ayuen Samuel, 31, says the conflict may have offered some assistance. "When I left Sudan to go to Uganda 14 years ago, there were just three secondary schools across the south. A generation was forced to flee, and now we are returning with greater knowledge of the outside world than we could ever have hoped to receive if we had stayed."
But he warns that, unless development gains momentum, many skilled returnees may reconsider their decisions. "It just didn't feel like home," Mr Samuel remembers thinking after returning in February. "I felt like going back the same night. When I tried to go to the so-called hospital it wasn't even up to being a primary health centre."
There are signs of hope - Unicef has promised to fund 1,500 new schools in a land where just one per cent of girls complete primary school. Moses Nyang, 27, has set up a school since returning from Uganda and says his initial optimism is beginning to fade. "We are free now but we have seen no peace dividend and as long as there is no peace dividend we risk going back to war," he says.Reuse content