May 21, 2012 (JUBA) - Hundreds of citizens from the contested region of Abyei demonstrated across South Sudan and in the United States on Monday, according to an official from the area, in protest at the failure of the Sudanese government to withdraw troops from the area.
A resolution from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on May 2, as per a roadmap laid out by the African Union, called for both Sudan and South Sudan to withdraw armed forces from the area.
Abyei, an oil-producing fertile area, is claimed by both sides. A referendum was due to be held in January 2011 to determine it’s status but the vote did got go ahead due to disagreement over who could vote.
A year ago Sudan’s army took control of the area, just two months before South Sudan’s independence. A subsequent agreement has seen the deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers to the area under a UN chapter seven mandate.
The main purpose of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) was to demilitarise the area. Last week the UN confirmed that South Sudan had withdrawn it’s 700 members of South Sudan police forces.
Sudan was called on to do the same, by the UNSC and AU, but Khartoum has said it would only withdraw its troops from the area once a local civilian administration is formed in order not to leave a legal and security vacuum.
South Sudan’s Information Minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, has rejected this and blames the international community for not pressurising Khartoum into withdrawing.
Marial said Sunday that the international community should impose “steep” sanctions on Sudan, saying Khartoum was only placing “illogical and unjustifiable” conditions on withdrawal of the troops in order to buy time.
Luka Biong Deng, a Co-Chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee representing South Sudan on Monday said the demonstration was to remind the international community that Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) are “still in Abyei”.
Biong resigned from his cabinet ministerial post in 2011 in protest of the military takeover of his native area, accusing Sudan of violating the agreement and committing atrocities against innocent inhabitants.
For six years South Sudan’s SPLM and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) shared wealth and power as part of 2005 peace deal, which provided for the mechanisms to resolve many disputes including Abyei.
However, the referendum did not go ahead in January 2011 and South Sudan became independent in July last year leaving Abyei in limbo.
“Our people today will go out in Agok, Washington, Wau and Juba in a peaceful demonstration to remind the world about the barbaric invasion of Abyei by President Bashir”, Biong told Sudan Tribune.
“People should imagine the human suffering caused by the action of [Sudan’s President Omar al-]Bashir. Within one year of the invasion of Abyei, the lives of 150,000 people have been put at risk with great human suffering”, he added.
The senior member of the South Sudan’s governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) recently visited camps housing the people of Abyei in Warrap, Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Western Bahr el Ghazal, where he said observed the level of malnutrition was not only high but there were more cases of death particularly among the children and elderly.
“Almost about 30,000 households lost all their belongings (beddings, clothes, shoes, household utensils, chairs, beds, food stock, livestock, future of their children, peaceful life, cultivation of their land, destruction of schools and health facilities, livelihoods ..Etc) and Abyei town remains in ruins”, Biong wrote in an email to Sudan Tribune.
He said that a survey conducted by his own organisation amongst the Ngok Dinka in the Abyei area were found to have a very high level of trauma, particularly among the women. “This clearly shows not only the human suffering caused by the invasion but also the psychological suffering being experienced by the people of Abyei", he said.
South Sudan claims that the Ngok Dinka are the true residents of Abyei and, therefore, they should be the only group allowed to vote in the Abyei referendum. Khartoum, however, insists that the nomadic Misseriya, who enter the region with their cattle for much of the year should also be able vote.
Biong said that in recent meetings with community leaders of Abyei in Wau "some elders were unable to express themselves in words but in tears. I was moved and stunned about the level psychological suffering experienced by the people of Abyei."
"Socially and because of displacement, people are separated and most of them are experiencing for the first time the food aid that is sometimes distributed in [an] undignified way and that made some people to prefer to go hungry instead of lining up for food aid distribution. Most people decided to return back to Abyei area, particularly to Agok area”, he explained.
The physical, psychological and social suffering caused by the conflict and their displacement could last for generations, he said.
South Sudan has warned that if SAF do not move out of Abyei, as per the UNSC resolution, Juba would consider attempting to remove Sudan’s military by force.
Chol Deng Alaak, another senior member of South Sudan’s governing SPLM from the area, said the international community should consider military intervention, to evict the Sudanese army from the area, to allow peaceful return of the people of Abyei to their places of origin.
“The international community has a moral obligation to see into that Sudanese armed forces are evicted”, said the country’s ambassador designate to Russia.
Ambassador Alaak said he did not expect the people of Abyei would spend another season living in the “open and under trees” without being assisted to return to their places of origins.
“It is a high time the international community act. Time for diplomacy has elapsed. The Sudanese government under the leadership of the National Congress Party responds to actions and not calls”, he said.
Juac Agok, a deputy chair of the SPLM in the area complained that people of Abyei were losing trust in the international community in the way they are handling the issue.
South Sudan perceives Khartoum as getting an easier ride diplomatically than Juba did during it’s ten day occupation of Heglig, another oil region just to the east Abyei.
Agok wondered why the international community, particularly the security council of the United Nations has been quick to respond to other issues but not in relation to Abyei.
“Are people of Abyei not part of the same global community? We have seen that the Security Council has been quick to respond to events taking place in Middle East. The Security Council was able to mobilise international support to intervene in Libya".
"We have also seen similar intervention Yemen where a president was forced to hand over the power and the same thing in Syria where UN appointed Kofi Annan as its envoy, why not Abyei?”, he asked.
Agok said that the Sudanese government had committed more than enough atrocities in the area to warrant international intervention.
“A lot of people have lost their lives. Their personal belongings have been lost and several of them remains traumatised and suffering a lot yet the international community does not see any reason to intervene. What makes the life [of] our people less [than] the life of other countries where international community pays quick attention”, he asked.