AGOK, South Sudan — “I ran because I saw many militias and SAF,” said Malak Miyen, an elderly Ngok Dinka man. “I survived because of God.” Malak was in Abyei town when Sudan government forces and allied militias violently took over the Abyei territory in May 2011, in response to alleged South Sudan army provocation. For over a year, he has been displaced in a town 37 kilometers south of Abyei town called Agok. This was the second time in his life Malak has been forced to flee from his home. The first time was in 2008, when Abyei town was similarly ravaged by fighting.
Earlier this month, the last of Sudan’s forces were withdrawn from Abyei town, following a year-long occupation. An estimated 100 Sudan oil police still remain around oil installations in the northern part of Abyei. The much belated withdrawal of Sudan government forces from Abyei town will likely trigger large-scale returns of the Ngok Dinka displaced and pave the way, finally, for the rebuilding of the largely devastated Abyei area to begin.
A new Enough Project field dispatch, “Abyei In Flux,” examines the current security and political dynamics, and communities’ sentiments on the ground, as the contested area’s population returns home.
“The food is not enough, the shelter is also a problem and the rain will come,” Malak said of his situation in Agok. “We don’t have money to buy things ourselves.” Malak is one of an estimated 110,000 mostly Ngok Dinka civilians who were displaced by the violence last year. Since last May, Sudan government forces have remained in the Abyei area, in violation of an agreement signed between Sudan and South Sudan in June 2011 that was aimed at defusing the crisis. Their continued presence was a primary deterrent for the displaced Ngok Dinka population from returning home.
“I fear going back. I am getting old, I am unable to run if there is insecurity,” said Malak when asked in late May if he was considering returning home. “We are hoping to go back to cultivate, to renew our cattle, to do many things. One kilogram of sorghum is not enough. If it is peaceful, we can cultivate for ourselves.”
Though the pull-out of Sudanese forces represents a significant step toward stability in Abyei, significant obstacles remain before peace can actually be sustained in this volatile and highly-politicized border territory.
At the political level, a decision on the final status of Abyei—whether the territory belongs to Sudan or South Sudan—continues to elude negotiators. Tremendous distrust between the two communities will also require significant time and leadership from both communities to reconcile.
In particular, deep misgivings among the Ngok Dinka population of returning to peaceful co-existence with the Misseriya community will have to be overcome for stability to return to Abyei.
“We don’t want Arabs, we don’t want SAF, we don’t want to eat from the same plate as them,” said Malak, when asked about Misseriya-Ngok Dinka relations going forward. “Do you know the Misseriya? When they come and they eat with you, they steal your goats and kill you.”
Read the new field dispatch: “Abyei in Flux”