Up to 25,000 people have fled the contested town of Abyei since an estimated 100 people died in violence last week. With fears still high that the unresolved status of this border region could lead to more fighting, UN agencies and aid groups are worried that the precarious humanitarian situation could quickly deteriorate, leaving those displaced even more vulnerable.
UN sources in Abyei told IRIN that residents of the town began heading south on the night of 2 March, after the police post in the nearby village of Maker Abyior was “wiped out”, as one international official said, off the record.
“A large number of persons have fled,” Deng Arop Kuol, the top government official in Abyei, told IRIN by telephone on 3 March. “Some are staying nearby, some have gone to the Agok area,” he added, referring to a town 40km south of Abyei, where 60,000 Abyei residents fled in 2008 when Abyei was razed by Northern Sudanese army forces and allied militias.
Subsequent assessments by UN staff in Abyei suggest more than half the population has left town, with the number of displaced ranging from 20,000 to 25,000. A 6 March UN inter-agency assessment reported that most of those displaced were women and children, with men staying behind to look after family assets.
The attacks were attributed by officials to Khartoum-backed Arab militia forces targeting villages north of Abyei. UN and Abyei officials said many of those killed were pro-Southern police forces who were supposed to have left the Abyei area following a security agreement signed by the North and South in January.
The violence comes as the Arab cattle-herding Misseriya population, which migrates seasonally through Abyei, is seeking to move south towards the River Kiir. The Ngok Dinka residents of the Abyei area have traditionally allowed this movement, but years of political and military tensions between Northern and Southern leaders have heightened mistrust between the local populations of Abyei. With the South on the eve of declaring independence and the future of Abyei undecided, the situation may have reached breaking point.
In the latest attack on 5 March, well-armed militia forces burned down 300 buildings in the village of Todach, north of Abyei town, according to satellite images made available on 7 March by a US-based project initiated by the American actor George Clooney.
“The Satellite Sentinel Project is the first to confirm the widespread and systematic targeting of civilian infrastructure across the Abyei region,” said Clooney in a statement released with the images. “Village burning has caused tens of thousands to be displaced, unknown numbers of civilian casualties, and the deliberate destruction of at least three communities. If this violence is left unchecked, it could put the entire North-South peace process at risk,” he warned.
With only four months left until South Sudan declares independence, both sides have yet to reach agreement on a host of unresolved issues regarding their future relations.
The thorniest issue by far is Abyei, a fertile and oil-producing region claimed by both sides. In the latest meeting of Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir and Southern leader Salva Kiir, they resolved to reach agreement on the future status of Abyei - which was promised its own self-determination referendum in the 2005 peace deal - by the end of March.
|If this violence is left unchecked, it could put the entire North-South peace process at risk|
Bashir and Kiir have not met since making that pledge in late January, but are scheduled to return to the negotiating table with former South African president Thabo Mbeki next week in Khartoum. With the latest violence spiking tensions on the ground, aid groups worry that a continued political stalemate over Abyei could have direct implications for the thousands who have left their homes.
“Should the displacement continue for a longer period of time, humanitarian needs might increase, especially considering the upcoming rainy season,” says Ann Mumina, medical coordinator for the independent medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has worked in the Abyei area since 2006.
“The longer these people remain without assistance, the more likely they are to suffer from malnutrition, respiratory infections, diarrhoea and communicable diseases such as measles and meningitis,” said Mumina.
The UN’s top humanitarian official in Sudan, Georg Charpentier, said in a 6 March statement that aid agencies in the Abyei area “stand ready to assist people in need, in particular with food deliveries, emergency shelter, water and sanitation, and medical assistance”.
Another aid group said that although the displaced had found their own coping mechanisms by staying with relatives, this solution would be temporary.
“From what we are hearing, many of the displaced have moved in with families in towns just south of Abyei,” said Tom Purekal, a programme manager with Catholic Relief Services in Juba. “This will place a tremendous strain on basic services such as water and food.”
However, despite the aid community’s apparent readiness to support populations in Abyei, the profound lack of progress by political leaders and the international community to resolve the protracted Abyei crisis suggests that humanitarian conditions could worsen before political realities improve.