Uncertainty for Abyei's Displaced


June 4, 2008

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Agok, Abyei area — Two weeks after armed clashes started in Abyei town, the approximately 50,000 people who fled southwards are hesitant about their next move.

Exhaustion, the imminence of heavy rains and the volatility of security limit the options of the displaced population, and make it hard to tell whether their return to the oil-rich area will be a possibility in the near future. Local and international agencies, including Mercy Corps, were swift to respond and have formed a closely-knit team to assist those affected by the emergency.

A large majority of the population of Abyei town has arrived to the adjacent areas of Abatok, Awal, Wunpeth, Malual Aleu and Agok. "We escaped when fighting started, and ran towards the south," explains Makuol Pachuil. This elder is one of the people who is displaced in Malual Aleu. In this remote place, off the main roads, Mercy Corps is one of two international organizations distributing food received from the World Food Programme (WFP).

Makuol's group, hiding from the sun under a big tree, comes from the village of Maker, about 20 kilometers away, in the northern outskirts of Abyei town. They spent two days by River Kiir, near the frontline, before getting to Malual Aleu. They look tired. The children are eating a hot meal made from the WFP rations.

"We don't know anything about the situation in Abyei; we just ran out," says Ajak Manyiel, another member of the group.

The UN Secretary General's Special Representative to Sudan, Ashraf Qazi, managed to visit the town last week. "We have been to the center of Abyei and it doesn't exist any more. It's totally charred. It's totally devastated," he told reporters.

It is estimated about 90 percent of Abyei town has been destroyed. The market, rehabilitated by a Mercy Corps-led consortium last year and bustling with activity only three weeks ago, is now reportedly burnt to ashes.

Uncertainty prevails among the displaced. Some are recent returnees and claim they do not want to move again. Others argue they will keep moving further south as soon as they get some food. There are also some that express their intention to move back to Abyei as soon as there is peace.

A few kilometers away, in Mading Jokthiang, children look up in silence as a plane flies over them. Under a tree, several girls while away the time molding clay into human figures and a helicopter. A group of people from Abyei town has arrived here after spending several days in the bush, and has taken shelter in a primary school built by Mercy Corps last year. They are not happy to be idle, but they have yet to decide what to do.

People have also arrived to Twic County in Warrab State and in smaller numbers into the states of Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Unity. The roads leading there register an unusually high level of activity, with people walking in all directions. In Panyok, about 50 kilometers south of Abyei town, the familiar image of displaced people waiting under a tree is repeated. The group here, women and children for the most part, is also wondering what will be their next move.

Rapid response

On the first days after fighting broke out, Mercy Corps staff and vehicles were among the first on the scene to support the transport and distribution of food aid in the areas of displacement.

Mercy Corps' offices in Agok are hosting the joint humanitarian coordination team from the United Nations and other international agencies. Those involved have commented that this forward operation center enabled the rapid response.

Mercy Corps' active role in the emergency response is a sign of our commitment to the communities with whom we work. Our organization has worked in the Abyei area since 2005, implementing economic recovery and civil society development programs.

In addition to the emergency relief response, Mercy Corps is continuing to focus on existing recovery and development programs targeting host and returnee communities in the Abyei area, as well as the adjacent areas currently absorbing the influx in northern Bahr el Ghazal, Warrab, and Unity states.