With the growing military presence in northern Abyei, an already dire humanitarian situation looms on the edge of becoming worse. The most recent crises, involving the burning of three villages, forced the displacement of thousands of people to south of Abyei town along the River Kiir.
Testimony collected through interviews conducted by Enough among displaced Ngok Dinka communities in the region illustrate the human impact of the ongoing stalemate over Abyei. The interviews also demonstrate pervasiveness of the perception among Ngok Dinka that SAF forces and allied militias, acting on orders of the northern government, are intent on eliminating them – if not by killing them, then by forcing them off the land for good. These fears reveal just how far trust has deteriorated in Abyei, raising the likelihood of continued conflict.
“They came in huge numbers using vehicles mounted with 12.7 mm machine guns,” said David Maywien, county commissioner of Alal payam, an area that includes two of the attacked villages. “Some were wearing the Sudanese military uniform,” said Anni Ajak Malual, a village chief in Makir boma, “Some were wearing the white robes that jalabiya wear. Some wore normal clothes. They came on foot, but also heard the sound of a car.” Some interviewees reported seeing helicopters picking up the attackers after the villages were destroyed. U.N. documentation corroborated these reports. Tukuls were destroyed, as were sources of local livelihood including a grain grinding mill that employed people from all three areas.
According to an assessment done by Catholic Relief Services, the only aid organization currently providing relief services to victims, displaced people have spread to areas south of Abyei town: 800 people displaced from Tajalei are staying in Mijak and Abathok villages in Mijak payam; 400 people from Makir are seeking refuge in Famun and Agenytok villages; and an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 displaced people fled to Agok, a town about 18 miles south of Abyei. Approximately 20,000 to 25,000 residents of Abyei town have joined those who are on the move. Most have little to no provisions, and many are living under trees, eating leaves for food and drinking water from the Nyamora River. Another village called Lau, in Tajalei’s vicinity, has also been abandoned, as villagers fear that the fighting may spread there next.
Continued low-intensity warfare in Abyei is also taking its toll on settled populations and has disrupted the economy of the region. Abyei’s residents understand security threats to be premeditated attempts by the North to inflict “a thousand cuts” and depopulate Abyei.
Meanwhile, local institutions are ill equipped to handle the influx of new families, and people fear that it might not be long before they overstay the generosity of host communities. The local government has little to offer the displaced populations, raising doubts in the minds of people Enough spoke to in host communities about the Abyei Area Administration's ability to ensure repatriation. Struggling to stabilize a volatile situation, many in the administration say they fear that this new round of attacks may have left people permanently uprooted from their homes with little possibility of returning. “We don’t have anything – no budget, no manpower to protect civilians,” said Acting Chief Administrator Mario Kuol. “The threat is here and now. We don’t expect people to come back even after peace is made.”
This is hardly the first time that civilians have had to vacate villages in Abyei, but limited state control, absence of law and order, security obstacles, and the increased pressure on scarce resources is severely testing peoples’ resolve to return and rebuild their lives. “I went back to my village to see the damage done and saw vultures eating the dead bodies,” said Nyanak Akuel, one survivor. “Everything was burned. No one heard our cries. How can I go back now.”
Photo: Civilians carry belongings as they flee south from Abyei town (Enough/Tim Freccia)