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Displaced from Abyei, People Tell of Loss and Uncertainty

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Displaced from Abyei, People Tell of Loss and Uncertainty

Posted by Laura Heaton on May 31, 2011

UPDATE: The International Organization for Migration reports that it has so far registered 30,642 people who fled from the insecurity in Abyei. Another 30,000 people still need to be registered, the organization said.  

MAYEN ABUN, Southern Sudan — “White airplanes” had been circling ominously overhead for a couple of days before they started dropping bombs.  It was Saturday when one fell on Achai Ajak Atem’s house, killing her mother and baby brother. At 14, Achai is the oldest of her four siblings. Their father died five years ago. Suddenly in charge, Achai gathered the other children and started running.

They ran in the same direction as all the others fleeing the renewed war in Abyei town, Achai said. But getting to Mayen Abun, where Abyei’s displaced are largely gathering, took longer for Achai’s family; her smallest brother is five and looks even younger.



Achai herself is petite and fragile-looking, eyes downcast, wearing the light pink and white striped T-shirt she was wearing that Saturday. Her voice was so soft that the people gathered around repeated her words to amplify them as she told her story.

For three nights, Achai and her siblings slept under trees along the road as they headed south on foot. When they reached Mayen Abun, they found others from their town, including some who knew that their uncle, who had fled as well, was nearby. Now they are sleeping under a tree next to their uncle’s family, and they have registered with UNICEF as vulnerable children, which will afford them some extra assistance.

Adding to the misfortune is the rain, which last night poured down in sheets on the thousands of people sleeping under trees or huddled under the few structures. Huge pools of rainwater from the storm turned the greyish dirt into a thick mud. Puddles of fetid, greenish water collect in the ruts made by the tires of the few vehicles moving around, many of them providing aid. It’s just the beginning of the rainy season.

Unlike many people displaced from Abyei, who say they will go home as soon as it is safe, Achai said there is no way she can go back. She doesn’t know what she will do next.

Rose Nhial Deng, 30, recounted a similar story of watching the Antonov planes fly over Abyei town with dread. “Then on Friday, a green one came very quickly, and later we heard that it bombed the bridge,” she said.

Rose was among those waiting for a food ration card in the makeshift camp here, one of three sites where the International Organization for Migration has so far registered 23,000 people. A U.N. agency has estimated that 60,000 people in total were displaced as a result of insecurity in Abyei.

“I have my small nieces, so we could not run at night,” she said. On Saturday morning, the planes came again, and she said they heard more bombs and shooting as they ran. “I heard that the army of the NCP came into Abyei town that day, so I was communicating with my mom. I told her she had to leave,” Rose said. She’s not sure whether her mother left. “Since Saturday night I cannot get her on the phone,” she said, and no one who has come from Abyei has had news of her.

When violence in Abyei broke out during the southern referendum in January, Rose happened to be visiting the town of Wau, more than a day’s drive south. She returned after the fighting subsided, and she considered leaving of Abyei altogether because it felt tense there. But the cost of moving her belongings was more than she could afford while she is currently looking for work. “It’s now because of the war that we managed to come,” she said with an ironic laugh. “But we left everything.”

Strikingly few men are among the throngs of women and children at the three sites where displaced from Abyei and the surrounding areas are gathered. The men often stayed, people explained, either to keep watch over land and belongings, to tend the plots of land recently planted, or to try to defend the area.

But one able-looking man, Luol Melang Chol, 32, was resting in the shade of a tree. He sat on the large sack of sorgum he had just collected from the World Food Program before going to meet his wife and two small children, who had stood in the line to wait for their family’s allocation of plastic sheeting and pots. “We were just carrying the babies. We left everything else,” he said. His calloused feet were caked with grey mud.

Luol’s brother was killed when fighting broke out, though he says he doesn’t know who shot him because the situation was very chaotic. In addition to his house, Luol left his small shop where he used to sell mobile phones and radios. He imagines that the stock has been stolen by now. “If I had a gun, I would go and fight,” he said.