Over recent weeks, thousands of people have been returning to Abyei, a disputed region on the border between Sudan and South Sudan, in the hope that a long-delayed referendum on the status of the area will finally be held.
“I’m ready to vote,” said Hamish Bol, a communications student at the University of Juba, as he emerged from a light aircraft in the town of Agok in the south of the Abyei area.
The government of South Sudan, which, unlike Khartoum, wants the referendum to be held this month (October 2013), has been chartering planes to help people from Abyei to return there from various cities in South Sudan.
Under the terms of a 2005 accord to end decades of civil war in Sudan, the people of Abyei were promised a referendum to determine whether the area would remain a part of Sudan, or be restored to South Sudan. But the vote has been repeatedly delayed, notably because of Khartoum’s insistence that Misseriya pastoralists, many of whom served alongside government forces during the civil war, and who spend six months of every year in Abyei’s pastureland, be allowed to take part.
Most of Abyei’s permanent residents are from the Ngok Dinka community, which largely backed the southern rebels during the war.
“We have suffered a lot. For a long time our land was occupied and our rights were neglected. It is time we have our say,” said Chol Ramadan Seek, a 22-year-old student from Juba.
Amid an influx of returns, humanitarians warn that housing, access to health care and even water resources might become scarce.
“That is why we call out for the international community to help us”, said Bol Biong Bulabek from Abyei civil society organization.
Stationed next to the landing strip, he kept track of the new arrivals.
“So far we have registered 81 returnees. We are expecting 70 more today. Yesterday 50 people arrived in the middle of the night. We set up tents and they spent the night here before they continued home to their villages.”
In Abyei town, bombed houses and government buildings line the only paved road. More than 100,000 of people fled from here when Sudanese troops invaded in 2011.
Displaced squatters in Abyei town
Some 40,000 people from Abyei are still displaced, two years after the incursion by Sudanese Armed Forces. Many of those who have since returned are squatting in looted and abandoned buildings or living in makeshift straw huts covered in plastic sheeting. The main market, destroyed in another attack in the summer of 2012, has not yet been rebuilt. The town also lacks many facilities such as schools, government buildings and healthcare facilities. The latter have until now been provided by humanitarian organizations via mobile clinics.
While most people who return to Abyei stay with relatives, those whose families were scattered and have yet to come back, can expect little help from local authorities.
“We are asking everyone to contribute. For example, we collect one South Sudanese Pound (US$1 = 4.40 SSP) from every citizen. The money will go to referendum activities as well as helping those who return,” said Bulabek.
The status of the contested region, the political instability and insecurity means many people are still hesitating to settle back permanently.
“Abyei is a region rich in resources. In addition to the oil, which is now flowing through pipelines to Khartoum, we have over 10,000sqkm of arable land. We have two rivers which can be used for irrigation as well as natural resources yet to be discovered,” said Acuil Akol Miyan, a member of the Abyei administration.
“Stability will bring development. People need to feel safe before they dare to return home. That is why the referendum is so important.”
Aside from Khartoum’s opposition, the referendum is beset with logistical challenges. This is the rainy season when roads and paths connecting villages turn into mud, and become almost impassable. This makes voter registration, which has started in some areas, extremely difficult.
“The Misseriya do not belong to Abyei. They come here once a year for grazing and water, and they can continue to do that once Abyei joins South Sudan, but that does not give them the right to vote,” said the paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka, Bulabek Deng. His predecessor, Kuol Deng Kuol, was killed in a Misseriya ambush in May 2013.
While aid organizations continue to provide food, household items and other support to people who have returned, many of the recent returnees see business opportunities once the state of Abyei is determined.
“The South Sudanense are my brothers, my blood. Now I hope to have the same rights as them. I see many opportunities here. When I graduate I want to open a small shop in Abyei or Agok. In Khartoum I can’t do that,” said Juba-student Chol Ramadan Seek, adding that negotiations or a possible split of Abyei between Juba and Khartoum, were not an option.
“New talks will only stall development. After this day a postponement of the referendum is not an option. They need to tell us where we belong.”