ABYEI, Sudan – This tense region wedged between North and South Sudan is a tinderbox. One spark could ignite renewed violence and plunge the whole border area back into war.
We learned this first hand when the Enough Project visited Abyei on the eve of Sudan’s historic referendum. Actor and activist George Clooney accompanied Enough co-founder John Prendergast on the two-day tour that included meetings with local officials and recent returnees from the North.
As the rest of South Sudan celebrated the start of a referendum that could give birth to a new nation, residents of Abyei remained in limbo, a reminder of the still unanswered questions that will require attention in the coming months in order to avert a war.
A region of nomadic Arab Misseriya pastoralists and African Ngok Dinka, Abyei was supposed to have had its own referendum on whether to join the new South or remain with Khartoum. But lingering questions, such as who has grazing rights to the land and who is eligible to vote, have postponed Abyei’s referendum indefinitely.
As a result, the Dinka of Abyei have threatened to hold their own unilateral referendum which would likely end in the region aligning itself with the South, a result that would be unrecognized by the North and could cause renewed fighting.
“Once again the region of Abyei, the people of Abyei have been left in the dust,” Prendergast said. “This place is the area which, and the issue which, if war resumes between the North and the South, it could happen here.”
The area has seen its share of bloodshed. In 2008, northern and southern forces clashed in Abyei. Hundreds were killed and thousands were displaced as Abyei town was razed. Residents of Abyei feel left behind by the South and threatened by the North.
“They are depressed,” Clooney said. “They feel abandoned by the South and they are in a vulnerable place. Sudan’s referendum can only be a success if Abyei is a success.”
While we were in Abyei visiting with returnees who were camped in an open field with all of their belongings, a potential spark was lit and the violence in Abyei flared up again. Clashes between Misseriya and Ngok Dinka killed between 20 and 40 people, according to reports on the ground.
Clashes like these are a troubling omen and a sobering reminder during the South’s euphoric referendum that challenges remain in birthing a new nation.
“If we let these issues fester, if they continue to fester, the more opportunities there will be for spoilers to undermine peace and stability between the North and South,” Prendergast said. “This is the place where war can start. This is ground zero for the potential for a new war after the referendum, before southern Sudan becomes a sovereign state. And we need to invest diplomatically – the United States needs to invest diplomatically – right here in Abyei.”