Alorbeny Ajak and a neighbour stand in front of her newly rebuilt home in Abyei. Credit: OCHA/Michelle Delaney
Aid organizations estimate that up to 30,000 people could return to Abyei, close to the Sudan-South Sudan border, as security improves.
As the security situation in the disputed region of Abyei improves, aid workers are gearing up to respond to the possible return of tens of thousands of displaced people who fled the area a year ago.
In May 2011, an estimated 110,000 people fled their homes and villages when the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) took over Abyei, located close to the Sudan-South Sudan border. Many people left on foot southwards in search of safety, taking only the few possessions they could carry. With their homes destroyed, they spent the next 12 months living in temporary sites and dependent on humanitarian assistance.
A year later, following a UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to the cross-border violence, armed forces from the two countries withdrew from oil-rich Abyei. In early June, the only unauthorized forces remaining in the area were a number of Sudan Oil Police who reportedly remained to guard the Diffra oil fields.
“Security has improved,” said Alorbeny Ajak, a mother of seven who had just returned to Abyei from nearby Agok. “We are no longer afraid to return home. My husband and children are still in Agok, and I have returned to rebuild our home. My family will follow when the schools reopen in Abyei.”
One significant development is that Abyei town has been completely cleared of mines, unexploded ordnance and dumped ammunition, according to de-mining agencies. The clearance work was finished after the withdrawal of Sudanese army and police from the town. Although the whole of the Abyei area is now accessible, de-mining experts say that only the main roads should be used. They are working on a map to show which areas and roads pose residual risks.
Aid organizations estimate that up to 30,000 people could return by August, and are scaling up their operations to provide food, water, shelter, healthcare and education to people like Alorbeny and her family. Tracking and monitoring teams have been deployed to Abyei to ensure the returns are voluntary.
“Relief organizations are working together to make sure people are returning because they want to, and in a safe and dignified way,” said the head of OCHA South Sudan, Giovanni Bosco. “The humanitarian community will provide assistance to the people should they want to return home to Abyei, or if they decide to settle elsewhere. Our main concern is that people in need are provided with food, shelter, water and other assistance.”
Aid agencies face several challenges in preparing for the returns. They fear that when the rainy season starts in July, roads outside Abyei town will become impassible, hampering relief efforts. There are also concerns that the volatile political and security situation could restrict aid worker movement and access to affected communities.
Reporting by OCHA South Sudan.