Fear of flareup in Sudan border town of Abyei

The optimism that filled most of southern Sudan after a largely peaceful referendum this month did not extend to the contested border town of Abyei.
By Rebecca Hamilton
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 11:05 PM

IN ABYEI, SUDAN Southern Sudan brimmed with optimism after a largely peaceful referendum this month that almost certainly will lead to the creation of a new nation. But in the contested border town of Abyei, the mood was somber.

In a mud-walled hut, Achol Deng Ngok stacked layers of kissera, a sorghum pancake, she had prepared to send to men north of town. Two weeks ago, clashes in the area left at least 36 people dead.

"We are scared, that's why we're sending our men food - so they stay in the villages north of here to protect us," she said.

But Ngok said she has an even bigger fear: "We don't want to be left behind when the south gets its independence."

That fear is pushing the Ngok Dinka, the town's dominant ethnic group, to consider declaring Abyei part of the south, even though they know that move might provoke the north to try to take Abyei by force.

Sudan's predominantly Muslim and Arab north and the largely Christian and animist south fought a 22-year war that led to the deaths of 2 million people. If Abyei's status is left unresolved, the area will be caught between two nations, possibly triggering a return to conflict in Sudan.

A 2005 peace agreement, which ended the war, promised the people of Abyei their own referendum on whether to be part of the north or south. The Abyei referendum was supposed to be held simultaneously with the main southern referendum, but the two sides failed to agree on who was eligible to vote.

Results of the main referendum are expected next month, but the Abyei referendum has been postponed indefinitely.

"If Abyei remains unresolved and the south secedes," said Jon Temin, director of Sudan programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, "the people of Abyei will be left in a very ambiguous and vulnerable position."

The agreement that ended the first Sudanese civil war in 1972 gave people here the opportunity to claim Abyei as a southern area, reversing a decree made during British colonial rule that had put it under northern administration.

But after oil was discovered in Abyei, the Sudanese government refused to let the referendum go forward.

This time, the Ngok Dinka have decided to issue their own declaration.

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