Saturday marked the one year anniversary of the invasion of the contentious region of Abyei on the border of Sudan and South Sudan. The government of Sudan’s attack on Abyei resulted in the displacement of an estimated 110,000 civilians from the Ngok Dinka tribe which the United Nations called “tantamount to ethnic cleansing.” One year later, the situation has yet to improve and only a handful of civilians have returned to their homes. The rest remain displaced just below the border in South Sudan.
As part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the civil war between the North and South in 2005, the Abyei region was supposed to hold a referendum on whether to join the South or remain with Sudan. However, the referendum never took place due to disagreements over voter eligibility. The region has remained in limbo ever since.
During last year’s fighting between the North and South, the Sudanese military attacked and destroyed numerous villages. They also looted homes, stockpiles of food and other supplies. The occupation of Abyei came after a UN convoy escorting Sudanese soldiers was attacked by Southern-aligned forces. The Sudanese government responded disproportionately and used the relatively minor attack as justification for a full scale assault on the region. The onslaught of Abyei town resulted in deaths of an estimated 116 civilians and the burning of a third of the town. Many surrounding villages faced a similar fate and were looted and destroyed by Sudanese soldiers and militia.
While Sudan and South Sudan signed an agreement in June 2011 to remove their forces from Abyei, South Sudan’s police force just withdrew in April and Sudanese forces remain in the region. Despite the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) mandate from the UN to monitor the redeployment of military forces, the presence of Sudan’s army and militias as well as landmines have effectively intimidated and prevented civilians from returning to their homes.
Abyei is one of the many post-independence issues that the parties have yet to resolve, along with oil wealth sharing and border demarcation. As tensions between Sudan and South Sudan continue to grow, it appears unlikely that the neighbors will come to an agreement on the fate of the contentious region any time in the near future.