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Abyei: The Heart of the Matter

February 4, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

"We're in the middle of nowhere and at the middle of it all at the same time."

This is what a colleague said today as we neared the end of a half-hour hike along a sandy footpath, bright red gum acacia trees lining the way, to visit a temporary housing project that Mercy Corps helped the community build for returnees to the Abyei area.

I couldn't have said it any better. Perhaps more than any other place, Abyei — a border region anchored by a dusty, chaotic, unexceptional town of the same name — holds the key to a lasting peace in Sudan. That includes peace in Darfur, and by extension peace in Chad, northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo … all the conflicts on the Sudanese border.

A critical crossroads for both northerners and southerners, Abyei is such a controversial area that it received its own special protocol in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan's civil war.

The CPA awarded Abyei residents their own administration, a formula for divvying up its oil revenues and a referendum on whether to remain in the north or become a part of a southern state. When the peace nearly fell apart in October last year, it was largely over a dispute about the implementation of the Abyei protocol.

It's a highly charged environment, one where impartiality is critical to success. Our approach is to put the community in the driver's seat, let them steer their own development (mainly infrastructure and services), and help them to address local challenges that, if lest to fester, could threaten the agreement nationwide.

What we saw today was an example of our efforts to help Abyei with one of its primary development challenges — the ability to handle an influx of returnees. Last year we helped the community construct several housing projects where people coming back to Abyei can stay for a few months while they build their own homes. This particular compound, outside a village called Maker (pronounced mah-CARE), was nearly empty when we dropped by (it was Sunday afternoon, and we were told many were either in Abyei town or in the forest collecting wood and grass for their new homes).

But we did meet one elderly woman who told us about being driven from the area by steal-and-burn marauders more than two decades ago. She was nearly blind and didn't have enough food — she'd had nothing to eat by 3 p.m. — but that seemed almost inconsequential to her. "I am very happy to be in my homeland," she told us.

Before that we talked to a 19-year-old Dinka girl, Achichong, who'd been born and raised in Khartoum to parents who'd fled in the mid-1980s. Achichong said she'd been eager to see the place she'd grown up hearing about, a place she also referred to as home. She was poised but shy, so to stimulate a little bit of conversation, I asked her the name of her son. Maker, she said — same as the village.

"We came back to our homeland," she explained, "and I named him for this."