Abyei: An uncertain future

27 Aug 2013

2013, Abyei: An estimated 100,000 people fled the town of Abyei when it was attacked by Sudanese Armed Forces in May 2011. Many of those who have since returned are squatting in looted and abandoned buildings. Credit: IRIN/Hannah McNeish
Continued uncertainty about the political status of Abyei – a contested territory between Sudan and South Sudan– has left tens of thousands of people in a state of limbo.

Only empty, looted buildings remain in Abyei, a formerly vibrant town on the border between South Sudan and Sudan. In May 2011, Sudanese Armed forces attacked Abyei Town, forcing an estimated 100,000 people to flee southwards. Two years on from the attack, about 40,000 remain displaced.

The disputed area between South Sudan and Sudan remains one of the most contentious unresolved issues between the former foes. In 2012, a UN Security Council resolution called for an end to the cross-border violence and the armed forces from the two countries largely withdrew.

But the continued uncertainty about the political status of the territory has left tens of thousands of people in a state of limbo. The insecurity and political instability, and the resulting lack of access to basic services such as healthcare and schools, deter many from settling back permanently.

A tough road to recovery

Nyantak Majik’s husband has just been admitted to a recently rehabilitated hospital in Abyei after complaining of a headache for a couple of days. “They told me that they do not have medicine to treat him, so he will be transferred to Agok for further treatment,” says Nyantak. Agok lies about 20 miles southwest of Abyei Town and is where many of the displaced families reside.

The hospital is one of the major infrastructure rehabilitation projects being carried out by aid agencies in Abyei. Until now, aid organizations have been providing healthcare through mobile clinics. In the long-term, they are looking to identify a health partner to provide medical services to the hospital, to ensure that patients like Nyantak’s husband will not have to be referred to Agok town.

The hospital is unique. A lack of administration and uncertainty over the status of Abyei has largely stifled long-term development projects. “We returned to Abyei in May last year because we love our land,” said Nyantak. “But we left our children in Agok so that they can access health services, complete their education and get a better life.” If her husband’s condition persists, she may have to relocate to Agok again.

Many of Abyei's residents have faced tough choices like these since May 2011. They are caught between leaving Abyei for safety and services, or staying in Abyei without either.

Caution constrains resilience

Aid organizations are providing food, household items and other support to people who have returned so that they can rebuild their homes. Nyantak is taking part in an NGO cash-for-work project where individuals earn 120 South Sudanese pound (about US$30) to clear roads. “We are happy with the project because we earn money for food, but most importantly we are developing our area.”

But, like most of the people who have returned to Abyei, she remains cautious. Few people have put up permanent structures.

“As long as the Abyei situation remains unsolved, we will continue to need assistance,” said Nyantak. “Because of insecurity, we cannot risk going to our bigger farms to cultivate (and) what I will harvest from the backyard garden will not be enough for the family.”

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