The town of Abyei is once again burning. Nearly six weeks before South Sudan becomes an independent nation, the Sudanese army has blatantly seized this town. In an all too familiar scene, civilians are again the victims of deadly power-grabbing.
I spent a few days in Abyei a couple of months ago. The purpose of the trip was to assess the difficulties encountered by southern Sudanese returning home after years of displacement in the north of the country.
In the last few months, Abyei’s population increased by 50% to over 110,000, as these people thought it was safe enough to return home. I met people without proper shelter – living under their own furniture, waiting for tents to be distributed. Some of them complained that water points were far away. Local residents said they tried to do their best to help newcomers, but things were difficult for everybody.
Yet, even then, tensions were rising. Abyei was not part of January’s historic referendum for independence and its own referendum continues to be delayed. As I entered Abyei town, I saw people walking in the opposite direction, mainly women carrying belongings on their heads and shoulders, with kids strapped to their mothers’ backs. It was clear that something was happening and as we approached the UN compound, we saw that every single male 12 and older was carrying an AK47. UN armored vehicles defended the gated compound and a line of peacekeepers in full gear was looking toward the town market.
Now there is the same image of people rushing southward, grabbing what they can and hoping to find help from somewhere.
On Friday, the tension broke out into full-fledged fighting. A few days ago, a Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) convoy, escorted by UN peacekeeping forces, was ambushed just north of Abyei town. The Sudanese military accused South Sudan’s army (the SPLA), but this is difficult to understand. When I was in Abyei, every single person I talked to said that north of town was a no-go zone -- including for UN troops – as it was fully controlled by militias coordinating with the Government of Sudan.
The outbreak of violence isn’t a huge surprise. Over the last few weeks, there have been numerous reports of the Sudanese army lining up heavy artillery and tanks north of Abyei town. A similar massing of troops was taking place south of the Kiir river by the SPLA.
But the ambush, a classic casus belli, sparked the SAF into action. SAF tanks entered Abyei town, accompanied by Antonov aircraft bombings and strafing by helicopters. Shells were dropped on villages south of town and some landed within the UN compound. As usual, the governments of North and South Sudan are throwing accusations at each other.
How many times do we have to witness this deadly game? Who will be held responsible for another humanitarian crisis? Did the UN mission have enough information from intelligence sources to determine who ambushed the convoy?
In any case, we are again reading official condemnations and calls for restraint. The U.S. is calling the Sudanese government’s actions “irresponsible”
and says this will “set back” normalizing relations between the two countries. The UN Secretary-General is demanding that Sudan withdraw its troops
. (In a curious coincidence, the overrunning of Abyei town by the North took place the day before the planned visit of UN Security Council members.) It is unclear whether these statements will actually do any good.
Meanwhile, the people of Abyei find themselves yet again in the crossfire. The humanitarian community will struggle to reach and assist people in need. And the worst may still be yet to come. Again, civilians are played as pawns, easily sacrificed in this game of Sudanese chess with a king on each side.
Real leaders should show respect for human life, and a sense of responsibility to move beyond differences and narrow self-interest. Such leaders would strive to protect the civilian population, help them leave behind abject misery and regain a dignified life. But it seems difficult to find these leaders in today’s Sudan.
The U.S. government needs to follow up its words with real pressure on the governments in Khartoum as well as Juba. While the government of South Sudan has shown more willingness to compromise than Khartoum, it is clear that serious international pressure on both sides is still necessary to stop the violence.
August 10, 2011
| Tagged as: Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Humanitarian Response