Sudan's Abyei region awash with arms and anger
ABYEI, Sudan — As Sudan's leaders struggle to reach a deal on its
bitterly contested status ahead of southern independence in July, armed
young men roam the streets of Abyei, the flashpoint border town where
resentment towards Khartoum runs high.
Fresh in the minds of the
local population are the attacks by Arab militia, in late February and
early March, in which scores of people were killed and hundreds of
houses burned in separate raids on three Dinka villages, the African
tribe to which virtually all the town's residents belong.
Mario Kuol, Abyei's southern-appointed acting chief administrator,
accuses the Sudanese army (SAF) of failing to intervene.
Tajalei village was burned, on March 5, I heard that the Arab militias
were coming to attack the area. I informed the JIU (joint forces)
commander from the SAF that he had to protect the villages, because we
had withdrawn our police," he said.
Three hundred buildings were
destroyed in Tajalei alone, according to satellite images released by a
US monitoring group, which one Sudan expert said this month were
reminiscent of the devastation caused by the janjaweed militia in
Observers, including the UN Mission in Sudan's force
commander, have since warned of a build-up of military weapons in Abyei
that could escalate the violence in the disputed area.
Kuol complains that northern police have kept the main road linking
Abyei to the north closed since December, and that forces backed by
Khartoum are occupying a swathe of the region that includes the Diffra
"Three-quarters of the northern part of the Abyei area
has been occupied by Arab militias. They have taken it as their own
land. But the land belongs to the Dinka," he said.
been boiling since January, when a plebiscite due to be held alongside
the south's referendum on self-determination, to determine Abyei's own
future, was shelved with the two sides at loggerheads over whether the
Misseriya, a tribe of Arab nomads, should be eligible to participate.
Misseriya, who were a key proxy militia of Khartoum?s army during the
1983-2005 civil war against southern rebels, migrate to Abyei each dry
season to find water and pasture for their livestock.
they should have the same voting rights as the pro-southern Dinka Ngok,
who live there all year, and fear their migration routes could be
blocked by a new international border.
At least one of the three
main routes was blocked by the southern army this year, according to a
UN source, who said both sides had been "very lucky" that last year's
rains have provided enough water to see the Misseriya through the dry
season, which is about to end.
Drought could have sparked off a
new round of fighting, given the history of mistrust, the weapons in
circulation and the politicisation of the Abyei issue, a key bargaining
chip in the pre-partition negotiations between Khartoum and Juba.
week, a technical committee is due to meet in Abyei town in the latest
bid to implement a peace accord signed by the north and south in
January, which calls on all forces to withdraw from the area except for
special joint units of northern and southern troops and UN peacekeepers.
Somewhat predictably, no one is expecting much to come from it.
the military build-up is such that I doubt whether these technical
committees will be able to withdraw the armed groups," said Charles
Abyei, the chairman of the region's legislative council, who believes
the north is simply "using" the Misseriya to control the region's oil.
"Even the youth in Abyei have taken up their weapons. Everyone here is armed. It is a critical situation," he added.
many of Abyei's youth, carrying a gun is the inevitable consequence of a
lack of other opportunities in this underdeveloped area, which has no
mains power supply and no hospital, despite its oil wealth and
Years of neglect by Khartoum, on top of the strong
cultural and political links to the south, mean that whatever the status
of the negotiations come July, Abyei's residents will celebrate
"Even though Abyei is still in the north, for us it doesn't mean anything. We are with the south," said General Kuol.