Only a fraction of the 120,000 people who fled the Abyei Area following an invasion by Sudanese troops in May 2011 have returned to their homes, amid fears of repeat military action and uncertainty over the area’s political future.
The Abyei Area sits on the border between Sudan and the newly independent South Sudan, but which of the two countries Abyei is part of has yet to be determined. In 2005, a peace deal ending decades of civil war called for a referendum to settle the matter, but that vote has been repeatedly delayed by disagreements over who will be allowed to participate. The referendum is currently scheduled to take place in October.
The indigenous population is dominated by the Ngok Dinka community, many of whom sided with southern rebels during the civil war. But every year, northern Misseriya pastoralists - who are generally aligned with Khartoum - bring their cattle through Abyei in search of pasture. With this annual migration now imminent, there are fears of renewed conflict.
Wandering around the ruins of a home destroyed in last year’s invasion, former resident Longo Mangom said that people fled with nothing and have nothing to come back to.
“We didn’t expect it the day it happened. [Sudanese troops] came in the evening when people were resting, and people were running without taking any luggage or assets,” he said.
Mangom, who has a job with a UN agency, also fled. “We were running just for our lives,” he said.
Services trickling in
Most of the returnees remain near Agok, a town about an hour’s drive from Abyei Town, which is the base for aid agencies shuttling in food, water and healthcare.
Charities are reluctant to be based in Abyei Town or to rebuild more than light infrastructure, lest it stoke tensions between rival communities or be seen as a political move.
Returnees are caught in similar limbo.
“The returnees are coming, and they want to rebuild, but when there is still so much anger and no sufficient agreement. People are fearing,” said Mangom.
“If the two parties do not agree on who should vote, I feel that we will face another conflict,” he said.
Achuil Deng, a tea seller, says there are some basic amenities in Abyei Town. But her hut was one of many razed, and she has resorted to squatting in an abandoned government building. She must trek to Agok for food stocks.
“There’s no problem with water. There’s a hospital here, so that’s okay, as long as there are staff in it - which is not always the case,” she said.
|Slideshow: Fear in Abyei|
|JANUARY 2013 - Following an invasion by Sudanese troops in May 2011, only a fraction of the 120,000 people who fled the Abyei have returned to their homes, amid fears of repeat military action and uncertainty over the area’s political future.
While her husband has stayed in Agok to farm, she has brought their children home. But the schools - once filled with children from both the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities - are crumbling.
“There are two things I hope for my kids: They should have a country they know and that belongs to them, and they can continue to go to school so that they can have a future,” she said.
Mounting war rhetoric
Achuil Akol Miyan, minister of finance and acting chief of the Abyei Administration, based in Agok, says the Misseriya have already broadcast threats.
“It is they who said on TV Omdurman [a television station], through their chief, that they would attack us and do a lot of things to stop a referendum,” Miyan said.
The African Union (AU) indicated it would pass the matter to the UN Security Council if the two parties failed to sign on to its latest proposed agreement by 5 December. The deadline has since passed with no agreement, but Sudan’s foreign minister, Ali Karti, warned of more violence if the issue is brought to the Security Council.
His southern counterpart Nhial Deng Nhial has promised that, if people are attacked again, South Sudan’s government will not stand back and watch.
South Sudan has been courting Russia’s vote on the Security Council, with the head of South Sudan’s negotiating team, Pagan Amum, and co-chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee, Luka Biong Deng, recently visiting Moscow. But these overtures suffered a blow when South Sudan’s army shot down a UN helicopter on 21 December in Jonglei State, killing four Russian crewmembers. The helicopter had been suspected of being an enemy craft dropping guns to nearby rebels.
Cattle take centre stage
There are also fears that cattle-keeping communities could clash over scarce resources in the first few months of 2013, before a referendum even takes place.
“This year, I can see a number of water points drying up quickly. And, especially this year, we are expecting a large number of nomads to come with a large amount of cattle,” said Biong Deng. “The level of water is becoming low, and they are coming early. Sharing the water and grazing [land] is going to be difficult.”
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“Cows are at the centre of our lives… When they are stolen, it brings a lot of anger and disputes,” said Miyan, who claims the Misseriya have stolen 3 million cows in recent years.
“These Misseriya are still doing some battles, like cattle raiding. We are having to live like this, but we hope someone comes and changes the situation,” said 15-year-old Ajak Lot Nadija.
After losing cattle in raids in 2011 and in the conflict, Najida says his family has around 60 cows left. Some stolen cattle were brought back with the help of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNIFSA), but “31 cows are still missing, and there can be no peace until they are returned”.
During a dispute with Sudan, South Sudan stopped pumping crude oil in January 2012, sending both economies into free fall. Meanwhile, UN Food and Agriculture Organization experts say that livestock trade to Egypt and the Middle East is rising. The numbers of exports are unclear, but with Sudan’s oil revenues plummeting, the Misseriya are seen as an increasingly important government partner.
Miyan claims the Misseriya have been passing through Abyei for 250 years, but now their role has been “politicized” and they have been sent to secure oil production in Abyei.
“Khartoum is giving them a deal, okay. Let them claim the land so that they can walk away with the land for grazing, and the government of Sudan will take the oil.”
“The right of grazing and water access is something we are willing to do,” he said. “But we don’t want them to block our rights” to the land.
“The Sudan government, for them the best decision is if there is a partition so that they can accommodate the Arab Misseriya,” said Biong Deng.
He says the AU proposal was more than generous when it comes to grazing rights for the Misseriya as well as a 20 percent share for Sudan in oil production, which could be as low as 3,000 barrels per day.
Rebuilding an uncertain future
Abyei’s few residents say that they expect their families and friends to come back in the coming weeks and months to plant before the rains start, around May, but that they won’t be rebuilding their lives there.
“I wish… there was no insecurity. We could have the cows and goats and rebuild our house. But the situation now is so insecure,” said Deng, the tea seller.
Tensions remain acute. People near a mosque frequented by Misseriya claim the pastoralists come to plot rather than pray. In November, a UNIFSA peacekeeper was killed at the mosque during protests by the Dinka Ngok against the Misseriya.
Attempts to interview Misseriya traders in the Abyei market ended in around two dozen people demanding to know why northerners were being spoken to and insisting that permission first be sought from a local chief.
One Misseriya businessman said that he had no problem with the Dinka, but feared his business would be finished if Abyei went to South Sudan.
“People remain displaced everywhere. We hope that people can come back one day and live in peace,” said Mangom. “In case the situation is settled I’ll come back, but it’s a matter of time and resolutions.”
“I hope to have a chance to go to school. I used to go in the village [school] up to the second class, and after that, we saw that the cattle were being killed and stolen, and I went to help with the cows,” said Najida.
“I want to be teaching people. I’d like to teach them, even the elders, to keep the peace.”