Deadly oil town dispute festers in Sudan

A thatched roof propped up by sticks provides the only shelter from driving rain for Sudanese mother Akur Chol Akur and her three young sons, displaced by fighting in Sudan’s oil-producing Abyei region.

Akur is among tens of thousands who fled homes near Abyei in May when clashes broke out between northern government forces and former southern rebels, raising fears that Africa’s biggest country could be sliding back into north-south civil war.

“We started to run at about noon, we ran all that night and the next day,” Akur said. “I have nothing,” she added, showing a dirty plastic bag that held all her belongings.

The fate of the Abyei displaced, estimated by the United Nations at about 50 000, is tied to the success of a “road map” to ending tensions and planned international arbitration over longstanding disputes like boundaries.

At stake in Abyei is control over a large part of Sudan’s 500 000-barrels-per-day oil output. The border town is surrounded by oil fields connected by a pipeline that runs through the disputed territory in the north-south border zone.

North and south have agreed to allow a month to identify the best global body to help them reconcile Abyei differences after a local dispute last month escalated to fierce fighting in which at least 89 people were killed.

But few see a quick solution to a quarrel that has festered since north and south agreed to end 20 years of civil war in 2005 with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

Causes remain
“I would be very surprised if the fighting has gone away.
Everybody recognises Abyei as one of the most flammable flashpoints of the many which are liable to derail the CPA,” said Sudan expert John Ashworth.

“That volatility doesn’t go away just because a paper is signed. The root causes are still there.”

Abyei’s borders were left undecided in the 2005 deal to end a civil war in which about two million people were killed.

The peace agreement gave Abyei the right to choose to join the north or south in 2011, when the entire south will vote on secession. At that point, control of Abyei’s oil revenues could become even more significant for whoever holds the town.

Following the deal to end last month’s clashes, a 640-strong joint north-south force is due to be deployed this week to try to keep the peace in Abyei. But it is too late for the refugees.

“If I had a gun I would go to war,” said Mayen Deng (23), who lost both his wife and newborn child on the long trek to Agok.

“My wife had a baby in her womb. She said I will not run more. I stood with her under the tree. The baby came out. She died,” he said, his eyes puffy with grief and exhaustion.

They walked for two days before reaching the Kiir River, where Sudan’s southern army has pushed up to its only bridge. Southern officials accuse northern troops of building up forces across the river. Khartoum says that is untrue.

Doubts over return
In one spot, a truck with a rocket launcher sits under a tree while other vehicles have been camouflaged with mud by southern soldiers in case of a return to battle.

Many of the displaced are crowded into a muddy open-air market in Agok, a small flat town carpeted with lush grass and dotted with circular thatched-roof homes.

“We want to go back but it all has to be alright,” said Alor Mayen, a young man who carried one younger sibling out of Abyei while his mother carried another.

Parts of Abyei were devastated in the fighting. Northern forces are in control and it will take time before the displaced build up enough confidence in the joint force to return home.

The force is due to be fully deployed by June 18 and will then take 10 days to train before taking full control of Abyei.

Aid workers say they do not believe the refugees from Abyei will be able to return home soon. They expect they will need food and shelter right through the current rainy season, if not for longer.

Most of the displaced fled quickly and took few belongings. One woman sheltering in Agok said she had left with her baby hours after giving birth. Another grabbed just a few articles of clothing and some spoons for cooking.

“They will be here until it is safe and secure,” said Anne Marie Ask of the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs. “It will be some time.”—Reuters

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