Up to 90 000 people could be displaced by fighting in Sudan’s bitterly contested oil region of Abyei where the United Nations is racing against time to provide aid relief and prevent a return to civil war.
Two rounds of heavy fighting between government soldiers and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) have largely obliterated Abyei’s once bustling main town of mud huts that was home to 30 000 people two weeks ago.
The market, once the hub of trade and social life, is charred and flattened.
Buildings have been reduced to skeletons and burnt-out vehicles are abandoned to the dust.
On the horizon, smoke coils into the air from isolated fires. In the silence of the ghost town, people loot what they can with apparent impunity as Sudan government soldiers look on.
Viewing the centre of town from the back of a UN armoured personnel carrier under heavy protection from a Zambian peacekeeping contingent, Asraf Qazi, the special representative of the UN chief to Sudan, likened Abyei to hell.
”We have been to the centre of Abyei and it doesn’t exist any more. It’s totally charred. It’s totally devastated. And it’s an absolute human tragedy and it is something that must never happen again,” he told reporters.
Casualty figures are unclear. The army, loyal to the central government in Khartoum, says 22 of its soldiers were killed and 45 wounded in the worst fighting on Tuesday, which followed clashes last week.
Medics at a clinic in Agok farther south, where UN agencies and aid workers are concentrating emergency relief efforts, said they treated 135 wounded — all but one from the SPLA.
The fighting is the worst crisis to beset the three-year peace accord that ended Africa’s longest running civil war between north and south Sudan, since the south walked out of the national unity government for two months last year.
UN-chaired committees grouping leaders of northern and southern Sudan, tasked with smoothing over difficulties in implementing the peace agreement, have not met since the latest fighting on Tuesday.
”That’s what we’re resolved in right now. Trying to ensure that this situation doesn’t deteriorate further and doesn’t spark off something much bigger,” Qazi said.
”That is a risk,” he conceded.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) gave the south six years of regional autonomy and participation in a national unity government until a 2011 referendum on independence.
Abyei, on the border between north and south, was accorded special status. But half way through the six-year transition period, Abyei has still never been governed by a functioning joint administration as stipulated.
In 2011, the area will hold a separate referendum on whether to retain its special administrative status in the north or join the south.
”We can see that with any one issue, with Abyei in particular, if violence flares up it could easily spread to other areas and easily threaten the whole CPA,” said Qazi.
”We are working intensively with the two sides to overcome this crisis. And we will continue to do so.”
Aid workers fear that a deterioration in Abyei — where the estimated half-a-billion dollar oil wealth is at the heart of the dispute between Sudan’s Arab north and Christian and animist south — could displace many more people than initially feared.
”We could have up to 90 000 people on the move,” Abyei UN resident coordinator Jason Matus, now in Agok, briefed Qazi.
”We are in a race against time,” said Andy Pendleton, the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in southern Sudan.
Heavy rains are scheduled to start in around two weeks. After that, water-borne diseases could spread unless people have adequate shelter, food and adequately dug latrines.
Sudan’s military has controlled Abyei since the latest fighting saw the SPLA redeploy farther south. The town is supposed to be patrolled jointly and the expulsion of the SPLA has sparked fears of renewed violence.
”If we are out of Abyei and they [the Arabs] are in, then we know there will be fighting,” said Mam Thuc, a widow with 10 children, speaking in Agok.
Her husband was killed in the violence after the family, displaced by the civil war, returned home.
”We were supposed to come and settle. We were IDPs [internally displaced people] from Khartoum. We came back and within six months this happened,” said Thuc, clinging to the hand of her youngest child. – AFP