Hope for Abyei's displaced as troops move out

The withdrawal of national army troops from Sudan's oil-rich Abyei region should ease weeks of tension and pave the way for the return of thousands of people displaced by recent fighting in the area, observers said.

"Those people have now withdrawn," Southern Sudan Army spokesman Major General Daniel Parnyang said. "We got some information yesterday [29 July] that the troops they left behind were leaving, but we are still trying to establish how far they have gone [from Abyei]."

Southern Sudan retains an independent military, according to the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), while Khartoum controls national forces deployed in Northern Sudan. Joint Integrated Units (JIUs), comprising national and southern forces, were set up as part of the CPA for certain duties and locations.

Abyei, situated where the north and south meet, has a special status in the CPA, but the definition of its borders and administration has stalled and the area has become a flashpoint in the implementation of the complex accord.

Khartoum troops clashed with southern forces in Abyei in May, displacing an estimated 90,000 people. Abyei town was razed to the ground.

Joint leadership plan

A roadmap agreed on 8 June indicated that the two sides would withdraw their forces and allow for the deployment of joint military and police forces. They would also agree on a joint leadership for the area.

Under the agreement, joint integrated units of about 300 from each side were to be deployed within 10 days to replace the two armies, which were to have moved out by 30 June.

Sources in Juba said the South had completed the withdrawal of its SPLA forces from Abyei, and sent a contingent to form the JIU, but alleged the North had until 28 July kept a battalion in the area.

The UN Security Council in June called for an investigation into the clashes, as well as requesting a probe into the role of peacekeepers deployed to the area.

Lack of confidence

The Abyei displaced are staying away, unsure whether war could break out again. They also expressed a lack of confidence in the ability of UN peacekeepers to stop a recurrence of fighting, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Almost the entire population of Abyei fled," a new HRW report, Abandoning Abyei, Destruction and Displacement, May 2008, stated. "In mid-July, they were still living in temporary shacks or crowded into homes with other families. Many told [HRW] they are unwilling to return until the Khartoum government fully withdraws its SAF [Sudanese Armed Forces] military forces from the town."

"It needs time," Parnyang told IRIN in Juba on 29 July. "All this time, the situation has been very tense. People have been talking about the fear that fighting could break out again. They were waiting for tensions to calm down before they started going back to Abyei."

Photo: UN OCHA
The town of Abyei was razed to the ground

HRW suggested the role of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in the run-up to, during and after the fighting, together with recommendations for any changes needed either to its mandate or military and security capacity, be made public. According to HRW, UNMIS knew of the tensions in Abyei in 2007, but did not react, partly because its mandate was curtailed.

"This was the result of inherent limitations in the UNMIS mandate, lack of sufficient personnel and resources, and movement restrictions imposed by both SAF and the SPLA," HRW said. "Displaced civilians [said] they had lost confidence in the ability of UN peacekeepers to provide protection for them."

Peacekeeping mandate

David Gressly, head of the UN mission in Southern Sudan, said the peacekeepers acted within their mandate. "What I can say is that we believe that the peacekeeping force acted within its mandate and capacity," he said. "As in all cases of this nature, there is an internal review that would point towards lessons learned. That way we don't repeat what happened."

HRW recommends that human rights monitors be deployed to investigate allegations of killing of civilians, looting and destruction of civilian property and other violations of human rights and international humanitarian law during the fighting by any armed forces or militia. In addition, it calls for a strengthened contingent of peacekeepers with sufficient manpower and resources to respond effectively to future threats against civilians and full freedom of movement across the entire Abyei area.

Gressly had expressed hope that the displaced could return once conditions stabilised. "Basically if these arrangements are fully in place and an administration established - and we expect that to happen shortly - we believe the conditions would be conducive for the return of the IDPS," he said in mid-July.

Parnyang confirmed that tensions in the region had subsided: "According to the people, after the SAF begun withdrawing, things [got] a little calm; the situation is not very tense the way it was."