Flashpoint Sudan town tense months after battle
ABYEI, Sudan (AP) — The dirt roads are still lined with burned huts, and many of the scattered residents say they are too frightened to return and rebuild, half a year after north and south Sudanese forces battled over this small town, claimed by both sides in an oil-rich flashpoint region.
With Abyei still largely deserted and its fate in limbo, the dispute over the area remains a potential time bomb that could wreck the fragile 2005 peace deal that ended two decades of civil war between Sudan's Arab-led Khartoum government in the north and mainly ethnic African rebels in the south.
The week of fighting in May was the first outright battle between the northern army and the former southern rebels since the peace deal was reached. The fighting killed 22 government soldiers and an undisclosed number of southerners, Abyei was largely devastated, and its 30,000 residents — most of them southerners from the Dinka Ngok tribe — fled, as did some 20,000 people from nearby villages.
Mary Alang, a 55-year-old resident, said she has visited Abyei four times since the battle, only to return to the village of Agok, about 15 miles (about 25 kilometers) away, where she and many of those displaced have settled. She said she feared there still northern soldiers in disguise in and around Abyei.
"Never again do I want to live with them," Alang, who says her missing front teeth were punched out by gunmen during the May fighting, told The Associated Press on Thursday. "Only when they leave, will I return."
U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes, who visited Abyei and met with displaced residents in Agok on Thursday, said the U.N. was working with both sides to get a joint administration and security running in the region to bring stability quickly.
"Although it has stabilized quite a lot, there is a quite a long way to go," Holmes told reporters. "The whole thing is fragile, with lots of big tests coming up."
He pointed to fears that if the 2005 agreement falls apart, it would not only reopen the civil war, but also worsen Sudan's other, separate conflict — the war in the western region of Darfur, ongoing since 2003.
"It is absolutely ... vital to get it right, because if the north south agreement fails, everything else will also fall apart," Holmes said. "Darfur peace is difficult enough with a north-south peace agreement, without one it becomes impossible."
Abyei lies on a disputed boundary between north and south, its residents mainly southerners but also including Arab nomadic herders of the Misseriah tribe. The region around it has significant oil reserves that both sides are eager to retain — and many in the south's leadership are originally from Abyei, giving it strong emotional importance.
The region faces a series of potentially explosive votes. Next year Abyei residents vote on a local government at the same time that the entire country holds national elections. Then in 2011, the south will hold a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan or declare independence, and Abyei will vote whether to join it.
But Holmes said the most immediate test comes now, as Misseriah tribesmen begin their annual migration through Abyei with their cattle, which often sparks fights over grazing rights. The new administration is trying to hold meetings to prevent violence.
Under a deal reached after the May fighting, north and south promised to push ahead with a planned joint administration and joint security force to keep the peace in Abyei.
The security force, however, has yet to be properly armed and equipped, and the new administration only arrived in Abyei two weeks ago, said Holmes. The U.N. is ready to help with equipping the force, he said.
In the meantime, Abyei remains nearly a ghost town. Aid workers estimate that up to 10,000 residents have ventured back to Abyei from Agok, but they are still too fearful to rebuild.
A few tents have been set up near the remains of burnt huts, known as tukuls. Wells still need repair and schools remain shut. A few shops made of sheets of tin were open in the town's center Thursday, selling groceries and fixing tires. A handful of traders from neighboring areas scouted for business opportunities.
Michael Mou, a 60-year-old resident, decided it was worth the risk and returned in August. He reopened his ramshackle shop along a road lined with deserted huts. "This is my place. Where else should I go?" he said.