Sudanese from border region skeptical of newest Abyei agreement

The thousands of Sudanese civilians who fled Abyei last month are wary about returning because they doubt the staying power of the most recent agreement to bring peace.

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    A patrol from the international peacekeeping operation passes a destroyed UN truck that was part of a convoy transporting northern soldiers out of the Abyei area in this handout picture released by the United Nations Mission in Sudan. The operation was as part of an agreement between the north and the south to help demilitarise and reduce tension in the area.
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In the wake of the impotent response from UN peacekeepers to the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) bombing and storming of Abyei last month, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing, optimism in reaction to the latest Abyei agreement was measured. While international leaders and diplomats tried to sound upbeat, congratulating the northern and southern governments for “taking this step toward peace,” people from the displaced communities voiced heavy skepticism about this new paper agreement.

Most notably, the deal signed in Addis Ababa calls for the deployment of an interim security force – Sudan’s third peacekeeping mission – and the withdrawal of all other armed forces from the area. It explicitly does not address the deeply rooted issues that have prompted some to call the disputed territory the Kashmir or West Bank of Sudan. The agreement should – if it is implemented to the letter – essentially return Abyei to the untenable deadlock pre-SAF invasion. An agreement signed three years ago after the attack by SAF forces and government-backed militias on Abyei town in 2008 served a similar purpose, deflecting final resolution to a later date and a different body. But this time, no timeline has been laid out for a political resolution and displaced Ngok Dinka residents may be more wary to return.

“The [2008] Road Map [agreement] was accepted because it was temporary and it was needed to break the deadlock,” said Kon Manyiet, a former minister in the Abyei administration, speaking to Enough by phone from Turalei. “We were waiting for the final outcome from the [Permanent Court of Arbitration], so we accepted. But today, what are we waiting for? There is no timeframe. It’s supposed to be temporary until they find a final solution, but when are they going to find a solution?”

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Aid organizations responding to the humanitarian fallout from last month’s attack are still concentrating on delivering basic services to the displaced while contending with an ongoing fuel shortage and washed out roads. A representative of one UN agency working in Agok and Turalei, just south of Abyei, said that they haven’t yet begun preparations for the return. Their relief activities largely follow the lead of the displaced, and Monday’s agreement hasn’t yet improved the prospect of returning to Abyei for those on the ground.

“I haven’t met a single family who is convinced by this agreement to go back,” said Rou Manyiel, the president of civil society in Abyei town who was displaced during the fighting and fled with his wife and three children, over the phone from Agok. “People lost their lives and property in 2008, but then we went back. Now it has happened again, but worse.” News of the agreement does not change his family’s plans to stay in Agok for the indefinite future, because Manyiel said that he is “confident [the Abyei dispute] will end in more fighting.”

Manyiel pointed out that Monday’s agreement does not address compensation for the displaced and those whose property was destroyed. After the northern army’s bombing campaign, plenty of people may not have much to return to, as images of burned villages from the Satellite Sentinel Project show. Looting was rife once the civilian population was pushed out of the region.

The agreement doesn’t address government responsibility for those losses, instead stating broadly that the North and South will “make a joint appeal for assistance” (from international organizations presumably) on behalf of those who need help returning to the region or who “have lost livelihoods, income, or assets.” Of the 112,000 people displaced, many will fit that profile.

The reservations expressed by those most affected by the violence in Abyei are understandable, said a US government official. The international community is “complicit” in the current crisis because “we should have been pushing for implementation of the Abyei Protocol for a long time,” he said. “People in Abyei feel abandoned.”

The US government began circulating a draft version of the mandate for the Interim Security Force for Abyei yesterday at the United Nations, and a team of Ethiopians who will make up the force will begin consultations over the weekend with SAF currently in Abyei. US Ambassador Susan Rice said that the United States requested that 4,200 Ethiopian troops deploy to the region, emphasizing that the US is working for a swift adoption of the U.N. resolution so that the Abyei agreement can be implemented “immediately and effectively.”

Laura Heaton blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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