Displaced people return to Abyei area - but humanitarian support is slow to follow

News and Press Release
Originally published

In February 2012, Tim Flatman joined families returning to Abyei nine months after they were first displaced. Here, he reports to Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) on his experiences in Abyei and on the humanitarian conditions facing returnees.

In May 2011 the Dinka Ngok population was displaced from (and in some cases, within) Abyei area. Their homes and possessions were burned. Some were killed. Others were subject to an attempt to block food and supplies from reaching them when the border was closed.

Humanitarian organisations responded to the crisis in the main clusters where displaced people were clustered in Western Bahr-Ghazal and Warrap states. Some have been working in Agok, on the edge of Abyei area, where the vast majority of the displaced population has come to live, although food assistance often failed to reach Agok during the rainy season.

But now they face a different challenge as displaced people begin to settle back in their villages, north of the river Kiir. Between three and four thousand have already settled over the last six weeks, and all the indicators suggest they will continue to come.

Returning to Abyei

I was able to travel north of the river Kiir earlier this month to visit returnees in four villages, asking them why they had returned, what the level of security was and how they were surviving given that no NGO or UN agency is currently providing food assistance north of the river.

I was escorted by UNISFA, who are keen for people to return so they can fulfil their civilian protection mandate, and understand that if people are to return they will need humanitarian assistance. I was escorted along routes which have been de-mined - even if official confirmation is slow to come. I was able to visit without a Sudanese visa, the argument having been won that since under the Addis Ababa Temporary Interim agreement the area is under the presidencies of Sudan and South Sudan, it is possible to enter on the visa of either country. I was even able to take a small amount of grain and flour to some of the returnees, partly using what resources I had to meet a need, but also to show others that if the will is there, it can overcome the political difficulties we too easily imagine make engaging with returnees in Abyei area north of the river Kiir impossible.

150 returnees had returned to Wunrok, a small village on the outskirts of Abyei town (and not to be confused with the place of the same name in Warrap state). There were 61 in Tajalei, although 40 were making the two day trek to Agok to retrieve their belongings now they had decided to settle permanently back in their village. There were 200 in Lau, and 1,300 in Marial Achak, where SAF had not reached in the initial invasion and where some had been internally displaced to from central areas of Abyei area, some had remained throughout the crisis and some had initially fled but now come back. I did not visit Dungop but was told by Abyei Administration and by UNISFA that there were 500 there. The situation in Rumamer, on the edge of the river Kiir, is more fluid and at any time there could be 1,000 – 2,000 there.

In more central areas, (Wunrok, Tajalei, Lau), returnees told me they had come steadily over the month prior to my visit to see the security situation with their own eyes. When they were satisfied that conditions were safe, they had told their family and friends to come and join them. One woman I met who had arrived from Wau the day before told me she would now tell her children to come and bring her things. UNISFA had successfully repelled some attempted attacks, had dealt with SAF soldiers who attempted to leave Abyei town (where they are mainly based) to harass civilians, patrolled constantly (“they never sleep”, I was told more than once) and escorted returnees gathering grass to rebuild tukuls and collecting wild fruit to eat. In Marial Achak, returnees were more concerned about dangers associated with Misseriya migrations than with the behavior of soldiers, but were also highly complementary about UNISFA. Anyone who ever had cause to speak with the Ngok Dinka population about UNMIS’ role and protection mandate in Abyei will be shocked by that statement, but it is true. Returnees consistently confirmed they felt safe and protected.

There were other reasons for returning. A strong emotional attachment to the land, a need to return to their place and the place where their ancestors were buried was the most commonly and enthusiastically cited factor. Some returnees suggested they were paving the way for others to return by demonstrating it was safe, by building structures and by preparing the land for cultivation so it could support more people. There were also negative reasons cited for returning. I was told it was better to starve in your homeland than to starve in Wau, and some returnees confirmed stories I had heard in Agok about displaced people in Warrap being denied land to bury relatives who had died of starvation. In these conditions, why not return even if there may not be food or water or medicine in your place, I was asked.

What was clear was that the process of return was organic. No-one reported Abyei Administration instructing them to return, something that was evident when I later interviewed displaced camp leaders in Wau who had not even been informed about the returns by Abyei Administration, presumably for fear it would be taken as an instruction to encourage the displaced to return. It was also clear that returns would continue. Not in the tens of thousands – most people in Agok are desperate to return but want to go back to the town, and the presence of SAF there does not allow it. But as new returnees inform their family and friends that it is safe to return, and information slowly spreads through displaced areas that it is possible to do so, we can expect a steady flow of people to villages north of the Kiir before the rainy season starts, and larger movements come October. If SAF do withdraw as they have committed (and as SPLA have certainly done), humanitarian organizations need to prepare for tens of thousands of people to move back even within a couple of weeks. But sadly, they seem to have no intention to do so. It is in SAF’s interests to stay in the area, to maintain a claim to sovereignty, to attempt to drive a wedge between Misseriya and Dinka Ngok, and to discourage returns.

Humanitarian concerns

While military security is vastly improved, food security is poor. There is no-one distributing food north of the river Kiir. Most returnees reported surviving by eating wild fruit and gum. Rivers were dry and attempts to fish unsuccessful. Returnees reported eating fruit they had not previously eaten, thought might be poisonous, and which was giving them stomach pains, out of lack of an alternative. They also reported having no medicine to deal with such problems. Water systems have lie in disuse having been vandalised by SAF passing through in March or May 2011. I saw water pumping systems where generators had been ripped out, and smashed borehole pumping systems. What little water communities had was being brought by individual, compassionate UNISFA peacekeepers, who were keen to stress to me that it was not their mandate to provide water and humanitarian organizations should be coming in to repair and restore water systems, but were not.

Food security will continue to be poor for some time. This is true and will this year be true of many areas of South Sudan, but in Abyei north of the river Kiir, people are starving now. Returnees are keen to cultivate the land but do not have the seeds to do so and the only tools I saw were rusted through and had no handles. Even if they are able to cultivate the land, they will not reap a harvest until October, and even then it is unlikely the harvest will cater for the volume of returnees who will then come.

Returnees also reported a need for plastic sheeting or canvass, but said that they were accustomed to difficult conditions and that if you are not hungry, you can withstand rains without getting sick. Plastic sheets were distributed in Agok last year, but a further distribution is also needed there as most sheeting is in poor condition and will not protect from rain.

Responding in Abyei

Distribution of food is needed now, but NGOs and UN agencies I spoke with in Juba cannot or will not engage straight away. Some may be persuaded to engage within a couple of months, others will clearly be very difficult to persuade. There are local implementation partners – including Abyei Administration but also including independent local NGOs like ACAD, and churches who already have volunteers trained in implementing and monitoring distributions from work last year in Agok. It’s my hope that traditional implementers with greater experience can be encouraged to re-engage, but to ensure returnees do not starve, I am working together with the Ngok diaspora in Juba and in Agok to raise money and use it to buy and transport grain from Aweil or Bentiu to Agok, and from there to each of the villages returnees have settled. Local church representatives will monitor the process. I hope to raise enough to last up to 5,000 returnees for at least a month, and by the time it runs out to have persuaded organizations with greater experience than I have to get involved.