ANIET, South Sudan — With Sudan’s northern and southern armies facing off on either side of the River Kiir and the bridge between them all but destroyed, civilians just south are settling into a difficult new reality. So long as the Sudan Armed Forces stay in Abyei, its Ngok Dinka residents will not go home. “We reject their claims that they will bring peace to Abyei,” said Abyei elder Deng Arop Kuol, the older brother of the area’s top official, who shares his name. Displaced people from the region broadly agree.
Without the option of going home, some of those who initially fled further south are now arriving in Aniet and its neighboring town, Agok. The market that was abandoned last week is seeing some activity, though there is very little to buy; the area’s main supply route comes from the north and cuts through Abyei, so no goods are coming through. Soldiers and gun-toting civilians are everywhere.
Abyei resident Rou Manyiel, a father of three, just arrived in Aniet after spending the past week in a more remote area further south, where they failed to find shelter. “The people there were very generous, but we need a place to put up,” he said, noting with some embarrassment that the host community provided his family with the small meals they have had since they left Abyei on the evening SAF invaded.
The family is still sleeping outside, but now they’re staying under a tree on a small plot of land where they lived when Abyei was attacked in 2008. “Our house used to be there,” Manyiel said, pointing to a patch of soil with the faint footprint of a small hut. “Once I have my family settled, I will proceed to Abyei and help take back the town,” he said.
Manyiel was trained as a soldier in Cuba and then fought for the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the civil war. Now he is a veterinarian and the president of a coalition of the Abyei civil society groups. Wearing a beige polo shirt, sneakers, and ankle socks, the AK-47 slung across his shoulder is conspicuous. “When the invasion began, I took this gun from some police,” he explained. “I’m not a soldier anymore, but I have to defend my family.”
As bombs fell, Manyiel’s wife ran with their three small children. Manyiel said he stayed behind with some of the men from their community to try to defend the town. After about two hours of fighting, they left as well when they realized they were outnumbered and overpowered.
In 2008, Misseriya militias and SAF soldiers attacked Abyei, leaving many of the buildings charred or burned to the ground. There were no aerial bombardments, a marked difference from the recent attack. The Ngok Dinka population largely fled to Agok, like Manyiel’s family, where they waited until it was safe to go back. This time, even the population of Agok fled south, fearing that the northern army would advance beyond the river.
“Really, it’s a policy of ethnic cleansing,” Manyiel said. “If the SAF was only retaliating for the SPLA attack, why wouldn’t they just target soldiers? [The northern government] cleared out the Dinka so that they could resettle the Misseryia. They have to occupy Abyei so that they can negotiate from a strong position. Now, at the table, they can say anything they want.”
With the northern military firmly in control of Abyei and the SPLA positioned along the river, Agok and Aniet are about as far north as Abyei’s residents can settle. Still, their leaders say that many residents are eager to come this far.
Sitting on a mat not far from where they will construct their temporary home, Manyiel’s family – now joined by two grandmothers, two aunts, and a handful of cousins, including a three-week old baby – looks at ease, especially considering their recent ordeal. They will soon receive food from the World Food Program and a sack of household goods to help them get started. Friends and neighbors from Abyei have settled nearby. Considering the volatility of the situation in Abyei and the fact that a resolution looks a long way off, the relative calm in Aniet might be an appealing alternative. But Manyiel waves off the idea that his family could stay here permanently. “Abyei is not their land,” he said, using the generic term Arab. “Why would we leave it to them? If they take it, how do we know that they won’t come and take this place as well?”
Abyei elder Deng Arop Kuol said that people in his community have expressed frustration about the southern army’s inability to repel the attack on Abyei. “Some people say the SPLA should have done more to defend. But we in the leadership understand that for now they are focused on the July 9th process,” he said. “They do not want to jeopardize the independence.”
Within this community that identifies itself as southern, the upcoming secession, now just a month away, lacks the celebratory luster that it holds in much of the South. “As it was agreed, we will not be part of the independent state,” said Manyiel. “But we are happy to see the South get what they fought for.” He paused for a moment. “What we fought for.”
For at least the next month, the stable but fragile new status quo seems it will endure. Aid organizations now have a clear sense of who is in need and are coordinating to provide services. The river forms a natural boundary between the two armies, and commanders with the southern forces have indicated they will not make any moves north. But the words “for now” are uttered frequently – by displaced people, aid workers, armed men, and Abyei’s leaders alike.