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Fragile stalemate emerges after fighting in Sudan's Abyei region

With the northern Sudanese military firmly in control of the disputed territory of Abyei, Abyei’s residents have fled to the nearby towns of Agok and Aniet.

By Laura HeatonGuest blogger / June 3, 2011

An Indian UN peacekeeper (l.) from the UNMIS Force Reserve Battalion stands guard along the road between the towns of Abyei and Agok, in this May 24 photo.

Stuart Price/UNMIS/Reuters

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Aniet, South Sudan

With Sudan’s northern and southern armies facing off on either side of the River Kiir and the bridge between them all but destroyed, civilians just south are settling into a difficult new reality. So long as the Sudan Armed Forces stay in Abyei, its Ngok Dinka residents will not go home. “We reject their claims that they will bring peace to Abyei,” said Abyei elder Deng Arop Kuol, the older brother of the area’s top official. Displaced people from the region broadly agree.

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Without the option of going home, some of those who initially fled further south are now arriving in Aniet and its neighboring town, Agok. The market that was abandoned last week is seeing some activity, though there is very little to buy; the area’s main supply route comes from the north and cuts through Abyei, so no goods are coming through. Soldiers and gun-toting civilians are everywhere.

Abyei resident Rou Manyiel, a father of three, just arrived in Aniet after spending the past week in a more remote area further south, where they failed to find shelter. “The people there were very generous, but we need a place to put up,” he said, noting with some embarrassment that the host community provided his family with the small meals they have had since they left Abyei on the evening SAF invaded.

The family is still sleeping outside, but now they’re staying under a tree on a small plot of land where they lived when Abyei was attacked in 2008. “Our house used to be there,” Mr. Manyiel said, pointing to a patch of soil with the faint footprint of a small hut. “Once I have my family settled, I will proceed to Abyei and help take back the town,” he said.

Manyiel was trained as a soldier in Cuba and then fought for the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the civil war. Now he is a veterinarian and the president of a coalition of the Abyei civil society groups. Wearing a beige polo shirt, sneakers, and ankle socks, the AK-47 slung across his shoulder is conspicuous. “When the invasion began, I took this gun from some police,” he explained. “I’m not a soldier anymore, but I have to defend my family.”

As bombs fell, Manyiel’s wife ran with their three small children. Manyiel said he stayed behind with some of the men from their community to try to defend the town. After about two hours of fighting, they left as well when they realized they were outnumbered and overpowered.

In 2008, Misseriya militias and SAF soldiers attacked Abyei, leaving many of the buildings charred or burned to the ground. There were no aerial bombardments, a marked difference from the recent attack. The Ngok Dinka population largely fled to Agok, like Manyiel’s family, where they waited until it was safe to go back. This time, even the population of Agok fled south, fearing that the northern army would advance beyond the river.

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