South Sudanese returnees

 Source: Inter Press Service (Johannesburg)

Nyandeng Akot rushed out of the rude shelter of thatch and plastic sheeting pinned against the side of a tree with sticks. Grabbing a passing aid worker's arm, she said she has nothing except the four children that she grabbed when she began running from renewed fighting in Sudan's Abyei area a month ago.


They are all hungry, she said. They need more food. She shook her head in despair but behind the hundred decorative scars on her cheeks and forehead her eyes remained empty, as if still in shock. A half dozen other older women remained, listless, in shade of shelter.

The Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2005 encouraged thousands displaced by 20 years of civil war in southern Sudan to return to Abyei. A local dispute in Abyei town -- close to some of Sudan's most productive and important oil wells -- spiraled out of control in mid-May and brought northern and southern forces into open battle again.

The United Nations estimates that up to 50,000 people were displaced southwards by the fighting, walking for two days to cross the River Kiir, now an ad hoc north-south border.

Akot is amongst hundreds of displaced people in one swollen market place that is also bristling with soldiers. There is a rocket launcher under some trees on the other side of the road. Four wheel drives have been smeared with mud for camouflage. It does not look like the peace promised in the accord.

For Akot and thousands of other newly-displaced people in southern Sudan -- and for the peace deal itself -- the next few weeks will be crucial.

The Abyei region produces much of Sudan's crude oil and contains valued grazing land for both southern and northern-aligned tribes; it has always been a likely breaking point for a fragile peace agreement.

The area's citizens will choose in 2011 whether to join the north or south, but Abyei's boundaries are still disputed. A group of international experts delineated boundaries for the area in 2005 but Sudan's President Omar Bashir refused to ratify their findings.

The Abyei area has remained in limbo since, neither electing its own local administration or receiving the share of oil revenues due under the deal. Southern officials have estimate they should have received $1billion over the past three years from Abyei alone but have not received a cent.

The two sides have signed a new roadmap to restore peace in Abyei and allow people to return home. The plan calls for the redeployment of thousands of northern troops that southern forces say were moved into the area by the end of June. A new joint force made up of both northern and southern forces has already been transported into the area by the U.N. peacekeeping force in Sudan.

Khartoum and the semi-autonomous southern government headed by the former southern rebel group -- the Sudan People's Liberation Movement -- have agreed that the Permanent Court of Abritration in the Hague will re-assess the findings of the expert panel.

But U.N.-led focus group discussions with communities suggest that even if new security arrangements are put in place, many have lost faith in the peace process.

Lydia Poole, a U.N. Emergency Officer in Juba, said most families will at best send one person to check out the situation before moving back together.

"(People want) clearly demonstrated progress in implementation of security provisions... (They) expect progress in the security and political situation in Abyei to be communicated by the government as well as being verified and communicated by the U.N."

Those returning to Abyei town itself will also face the task of reconstruction. Recent visitors to the town -- now more or less empty of civilians -- say it has been largely torched.

"They don't want peace," Mayen Deng, a young man among the displaced, said of the northern troops that now hold Abyei town.

The swift destruction of the town and the emptying of surrounding villages has punctured Deng's hope that his adult life will be substantially different from a childhood lived in war.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 did not end tension and suspicion between north and south Sudan. Both sides have blamed each other for failing to implement key provisions of the accord. In October, southern ministers pulled out of a coalition government over both the unresolved final status of Abyei and Khartoum's failure to withdraw all its troops out of the south as agreed and increase transparency in how oil cash is divided.

Since then, clashes between the southern army and a northern militia that southern President Salva Kiir says is supported by Khartoum have weakened the fragile relationship further.

"I would be very surprised if the fighting has gone away. Everybody recognizes Abyei as one of the most flammable flashpoints of the many which are liable to derail the (peace agreement)," says John Ashworth, an independent analyst and commentator based in South Africa who has written extensively on south Sudan's peace deal.

"No agreement signed by the NCP (Khartoum's leading National Congress Party) is worth anything until it has been proven to be implemented. The Abyei road map is another one of many agreements that they have signed. We wait eagerly to see whether it will be implemented by the NCP," Ashworth said.

But Kiir is adamant that he will not be drawn into renewed war, a position much praised by many southerners and diplomats.

The people of southern Sudan are only beginning to put their lives back together after 20 years of war. A return to war would be deeply unpopular.

The challenges to the peace deal and the constant state of tension in north-south relations is a source of frustration to the southerners Reverend Peter Nyok a young priest working in the south's new capital serves. Many feel it is too early and too uncertain to be comfortable about the future,

"(But) Southerners must keep their eye on peace for today and tomorrow and wait for 2011 to make their choice," he said.

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