Twelve year old John Marai was in class when he heard the deafening sound of artillery and automatic rifles. He fled the school on foot along with his fellow students, into the bush away from the fighting, running past bodies of soldiers and civilians lying alongside the road.
When he reached Agok three days later with a few brothers and sisters who had been with him at school, John immediately began looking for his mother and father. Four days later he found them- but learned that his sister Aluel and brother Mariak, both around 7 years old, were missing. They had been sent to the market on an errand when the fighting began, and have still not been found.
It is a scene replayed endless times throughout the nearly twenty year war in southern Sudan, and in today’s ongoing conflict in Darfur.
But this time the violence took place three years after the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and South in 2005; such attacks were supposed to be a thing of the past. The burning of Abyei marks a return to violence that could reignite another destructive civil war.
Abyei, a land of green marshes that sits deep in the heart of central Sudan, wedged between the North and South and touching Darfur’s eastern border, is home to both the Ngok Dinka tribe who were targeted by the government during the civil war, and the Misseriya, an Arab tribe that was recruited by the North to attack Dinka villages in exchange for cattle, loot and slaves. Today, with oil fields estimated by the International Crisis Group to be worth more than half a billion dollars, Abyei is the most desired and contested area in Sudan.
In the months leading up to May, the 31st brigade of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the forces of the South Sudanese government had been building up military forces around Abyei, and experts including Roger Winter suggest that the SAF had been pushing people out of nearby villages for several months. On May 13th a minor incident between the opposing sides quickly escalated into full scale fighting and shelling over the next few days. When it was over, Abyei had been completely destroyed; every hut in smoking ruins, the market smashed and looted.
For Munrol Ayak, a Dinka tailor who had a shop in this market, the attack was all too familiar. Many residents of Abyei had been displaced once already during the civil war. In an interview, Munrol described the attack twenty years ago that forced him to leave for Khartoum, capital of Sudan:
They would ride the horses and shoot at you. If you ran, they would take a match and burn the house. They were looting things; cattle, gold, all the properties in the house. They would take the children captive, rape the girls, kill the grown ups. They might leave the really old people. That was how it was in the 80’s during the war.
Munrol told me what he saw in Abyei this time:
During last month’s attack I saw fighting and guns, they were not discriminating-the SAF was shooting at anyone, soldiers, civilians. Later I saw someone inside my own shop who had been burned to death inside. A Dinka man, maybe 20 years old.
Some 50,000 people from Abyei and the surrounding area have been forced from their homes and are trying to survive the heavy rains that instantly turn this part of Sudan into a muddy swamp. Luckily, aid and development organizations have long had a presence in the area. Although their compounds in Abyei were destroyed and looted in the attack, they and UN agencies have been able to provide tarps, food, and drinkable water to nearly all the displaced.
The UN Security Council has been in Sudan this month pressing for peace, and Khartoum and the southern Government have agreed to international mediation on Abyei and for the 31st brigade to be pulled out of the town. Though the Abyei issue had already been covered under the 2005 agreement signed by both parties, Khartoum has so far refused to follow through. Both sides seem to be stepping back from the brink. Within a week or two the IDPs may be able to return to Abyei, and begin the long process of rebuilding, of reclaiming their lives from the ruins.
John Marai says he does not want to go back. He is afraid that there will be another attack. Munrol the tailor wants to rebuild, but says he will refuse any compensation offered by the North. For him, the humiliation of accepting money from those who destroyed his home would be too much.
Neither of them has much faith in promises of peace.
Listen to our podcast interview with Sudan expert Roger Winter, who was in Abyei shortly after it was destroyed. Learn about Abyei and Winter’s work to stop war in a profile by Eliza Grizwold in the New York Times Magazine.
Posted By: Michael Graham | June 13, 2008 | Comments (0)