So Much for the Peaceful Division of Sudan
The violence in Abyei shows that if Khartoum is determined to cause trouble, there's very little U.N. peacekeepers can do about it.
WAU, South Sudan—Katerina Nyakat Monjok can see the sprawling compound of the U.N. Mission in Sudan from her home in Abyei. But Monjok, 37, says her proximity to the peacekeeping base did not provide any protection when the Sudanese government attacked her town on May 21.
Abyei town, which lies in a contested and fertile border region of the same name, was long predicted to be a flashpoint that could derail progress toward the peaceful separation of Sudan into two countries this summer. Following a January referendum, in which southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to secede from the north, South Sudan will gain independent nationhood on July 9.
The status of Abyei, which both north and south claim ownership over, was supposed to be resolved before July through political negotiation, after a separate referendum for Abyei was postponed indefinitely. The south argued that only the Ngok Dinka, the non-Arab group who are loyal to the south and live in Abyei year-round, should vote. The north argued that the Misseriya, an Arab nomadic group who pass through the area to graze their cattle every dry season, should also vote, believing this would secure Abyei for the north.
Until the May 21 attack, a joint north-south administration was responsible for the area under an arrangement that U.N. peacekeepers were monitoring. But since the attack, the Sudanese government has taken control of Abyei town, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has declared that "Abyei is northern Sudanese land." Khartoum says it was provoked into seizing the town after an ambush on its soldiers by the southern forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, a claim the government of South Sudan denies.
After the attack, the United Nations flew an additional company of Indian peacekeepers into Abyei to bolster the Zambian contingent that was already in place, according to U.N. spokeswoman Hua Jiang. Viewed from the air on Sunday, May 29, two U.N. armored personnel carriers could be seen positioned by a bridge that the Sudanese army destroyed, and the UNMIS base was the most active part of a town that is now largely deserted.
But those who fled say they needed that additional U.N. presence during the attack.
Like many of the displaced I have interviewed in recent days, Monjok says her first indication of a coming attack was the sound of bombing, which she heard on May 19. But unlike many others, she did not leave at that time, because she thought they would not bomb her house, since it was so close to the UNMIS base.
The following evening, ground forces entered Abyei. "I was washing clothes when it happened" said Monjok from a dusty courtyard in Wau, the capital of Western Bahr el-Ghazal state in South Sudan, where tens of thousands of Abyei's displaced have fled. "There were shots coming from both sides. I saw men on motorbikes" she recalled. "They shouted, 'Allahu Akbar!'['God is great!'] and 'We have seized Abyei!' "
Monjok ran for cover in bushes just off the road, and from that vantage point she saw Sudanese army tanks rolling into Abyei on Saturday night. Once darkness fell, she began a journey of four days, without food or water, to reach safety in Wau. Now she is one of an estimated 80,000 Abyei residents displaced across the northeastern states of South Sudan.