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 CNS Story:

ABYEI-TENSIONS Mar-14-2011 (960 words) xxxi

Priest in Southern Sudan tells of families fleeing Abyei violence

By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service

EUGENE, Ore. (CNS) -- Violence in the contested Abyei region of Sudan has displaced thousands of families and threatens to derail talks leading to the birth of Africa's newest country in July.

Satellite images show troops from the North and South digging in around Abyei, a contested region where at least 149 people were killed in fighting that began in late February. Aid groups estimate some 45,000 people have fled the region.

"Because of the fighting, most people have fled to the South. The few people still in Abyei are gathering their property and preparing to leave as well," said Father Peter Suleiman, pastor of Our Lady of the Annunciation Parish in Abyei. He spoke with Catholic News Service by phone from Agok, a town about 15 miles south of Abyei.

The violence stems from a conflict between the nomadic Misseriya, a Khartoum-backed tribe that takes its cattle to Abyei during several months of the dry season, and the permanent residents of Abyei, mostly members of the Dinka Ngok tribe who support the Southern Sudan government in Juba.

A referendum on Abyei's political future was scheduled for January, but it never took place because the two sides could not agree on who was eligible to vote.

Father Suleiman said the Misseriya initiated the current fighting.

"They were allowed to come to Abyei to graze and water their cows, but they were not to be armed. This time they came with their cows but they also brought their guns and militias. And they started fighting," Father Suleiman said.

"They destroyed four villages and caused many casualties. They burned houses and burned a school and a clinic. The four villages they attacked were reduced to ashes. Nobody is left there," he said.

According to the priest and other reports from the region, some of the displaced have moved in with relatives in villages to the south of Abyei, yet hundreds of families are living in the open, constructing makeshift shelters. A report from a Save the Children Sweden assessment team said area wells were unable to provide adequate water for the increased population and that fights had broken out at some water points.

An assessment team from Catholic Relief Services was in the region in mid-March and was expected to make recommendations soon on how the organization can best respond, said Andrew Rosauer, director of the CRS Southern Sudan program. Aid groups are reporting an urgent need for food, temporary shelter, blankets and mosquito nets.

Gathered in Juba for a conference on the country's challenges, church leaders from both the North and South issued a March 11 statement in which they said they "remain deeply concerned and highly alarmed about the current situation" in Abyei and other areas where violence has broken out.

According to Eric Reeves, a Sudan expert at Smith College, Northampton, Mass., an attempt by the Khartoum government to seize Abyei is imminent. He said tanks, artillery and soldiers are moving into position for an attack that could come anytime.

"Given Khartoum's understanding that international pressure against this military action may mount rapidly now that it has become so conspicuous, the likelihood is that the offensive will begin sooner rather than later," he wrote in a blog March 13.

In response to the attacks around Abyei, the government in Juba broke off talks with Khartoum over details of the July independence of the South.

John Ashworth, an adviser to the Sudan Ecumenical Forum, called this "quite normal brinkmanship" that was characteristic of the way negotiations are conducted in Sudan.

"I don't think this will affect the independence of the South. July 9 is as sacrosanct as Jan. 9 was," he said, comparing the date of Southern Sudan's expected independence with the date of its referendum on secession.

Father Suleiman said he still hoped that negotiations would make it possible for the displaced to return home -- least those families whose homes were not destroyed.

"We believe in dialogue, so we're asking God to intervene in the talks, hoping something good will come from them," he said.

Tom Purekal, program manager for peace building and governance for CRS in Southern Sudan, said the region's history gave him hope the situation can be resolved.

"The communities there have lived together for generations with mutual arrangements on migratory routes, but political rhetoric has amplified a sense of fear and distrust between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya," he said.

"A political solution is critical, but one that considers the perspective of local communities and tries to correct the inflammatory language being circulated. Once a political solution is reached, it will be incumbent upon trusted institutions like the church and agencies like Catholic Relief Services to bring together key stakeholders and communities, deconstruct the false messaging being promoted, and restore relationships to a place where the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya can once again live together," Purekal said.

Although he remains hopeful, Father Suleiman said finding a political solution is made more difficult by the oil under Abyei's soil.

"It's clear that people in the government in Khartoum are still thinking about the oil. They don't want to give it up, so they keep violating all the agreements they make in order to get at the oil," he said.

Ashworth said the Sudanese government has manipulated the Misseriya into causing the recent violence. He said international pressure was the only hope for convincing Khartoum to desist from trying to regain control of Abyei, which according to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was guaranteed the right to decide its own fate.

"The international community needs to recognize that Khartoum has continuously breached the CPA on Abyei. The world needs to present a firm front on this and not keep calling for more negotiation and compromise," Ashworth said.


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