Opening Doors in Abyei

Sudan, February 16, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Theresa Whex, 38, in the kitchen of her restaurant in Abyei's main market. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Rodrigo Ordóñez/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps helps the market grow by improving roads and electrifying market stalls. Mohammed Abdulrahman broadened his selection of paint, wiring, tools and other building supplies. "No one was thinking of using these materials before," he says. Photo: Rodrigo Ordóñez/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Rodrigo Ordóñez/Mercy Corps  </span>
    This grain stall in Abyei's market sells an assortment of sorghum, a staple grain in this part of Sudan. Photo: Rodrigo Ordóñez/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Rodrigo Ordóñez/Mercy Corps  </span>
    An estimated 85 percent of Abyei's residents abandoned the town during the war. Peace arrived in 2005 and a building boom ensued. Photo: Rodrigo Ordóñez/Mercy Corps

Abyei town, Sudan — Patterned bedsheets keep the mid-afternoon Sahelian sun and the swirling dust out of Theresa Whex's restaurant in Abyei's main market, a maze of mostly stick-and-straw stalls.

A few hours ago, customers sat on plastic chairs eating a lunch of fava beans, meat stew and ugali, the traditional East African porridge of maize flour and water. Now the restaurant is empty, and the 38-year-old mother of nine busies herself cleaning pots and pans in the kitchen area.

"It's been a good day," Theresa says, estimating her profit at 15 Sudanese pounds, or a little less than eight U.S. dollars.

Theresa is one of hundreds of relatively new stall owners in Abyei's main market, which has grown exponentially since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended Africa's longest-running civil war. Prior to peace, market wares were limited to basic foodstuffs and household essentials. Today, shoppers can find goods ranging from staple grains to building supplies to home furnishings and even cell phones. "When I started, this market was very small, and there were not many people," Theresa says. "It was difficult at first, but now it's improving."

At first glance, Abyei is a dusty, chaotic, unexceptional town that anchors a larger geographic area of the same name. But Abyei's role in Sudan's peace process is anything but ordinary. Historically, Abyei has served as a bridge between north and south Sudan. Its lucrative oil fields were one reason why both sides claimed Abyei during the war, which displaced an estimated 85 percent of the area's residents. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement acknowledged Abyei's importance by devoting a separate protocol to the area that, among other things, granted Abyei its own government.

Yet so far, the people here have seen only part of the agreement actually implemented. "Failure to adequately address Abyei," warns the U.S. human-rights group ENOUGH in a recent report, "is a virtual guarantee of horrific violence in that embattled region and may presage a full-scale war throughout the country."

Despite Abyei's uncertain future, former residents are returning to the area in droves, which is creating opportunities for entrepreneurs like Theresa Whex. Peace brought Theresa and five of her nine children back in 2006 from Khartoum, where for 18 years she "slept in the slums" and made do selling home-brewed alcohol and cooking for parish priests.

"I was a farmer before I went to Khartoum, but when I returned to Abyei I wanted to make money," she explains. "So I opened this restaurant."

Theresa has played a significant role in the area's commercial development as an elected official of the Abyei Chamber of Commerce, which Mercy Corps helped form in early 2007. Its 12-member board meets twice a month and has recently discussed building its own office, offering startup loans to traders and trekking to the southern capital of Juba to lobby the government for financial assistance.

Helping Abyei's market grow is part of Mercy Corps' efforts to ensure that the area's economic development keeps pace with the influx of returnees. Other Mercy Corps initiatives have helped electrify stalls, organize community cleanups and upgrade 900 meters of the market's main road.

"The idea is to bring back basic services to a population that has been deeply affected by the war in an area that has no functional government," says J.J. Franc de Ferriere, who manages the Mercy Corps-led Abyei Recovery and Rehabilitation Programme, funded by the European Union and managed by the UN Development Programme.

He says Mercy Corps has established technical committees of residents in key sectors — including health, education and water — so that people can more effectively drive the area's reconstruction.

Mercy Corps' peace-building efforts in Abyei lend themselves to other troubled areas in Sudan, says Richard Haselwood, Mercy Corps' country director. "If the CPA is implemented, our work in places like Abyei can lay the foundation for a model for postwar recovery and rehabilitation in Darfur."

Rebuilding Abyei is not without significant challenges. Efforts to form a chamber of commerce revealed some of the mistrust that exists between the two main population groups, the northern Misseriya and the southern Dinka. All traders participated in a three-day Mercy Corps work session to help set up the chamber. But many Misseriya traders dropped out of the chamber after the majority f members decided to hold open elections to determine officer seats, rather than apportion them along tribal lines.

But Theresa downplays the dispute and describes relations between the traders as peaceful. And Mercy Corps' Franc de Ferriere says all traders voiced appreciation for the process and that the formation of the chamber bodes well for the future of Abyei's Arab-Dinka relations. "People saw they could play a key role in the social life here without reverting to weapons."

"Abyei means a lot to me," Theresa says. "It's a beautiful place." She hopes cooperation and collaboration become Abyei's watchwords. Lasting peace in Sudan may depend on it.