Almost a year after fleeing fighting in Abyei, a disputed region on the border between South Sudan and Sudan, thousands of civilians are struggling to get by in villages such as Abothok in South Sudan.
Abothok local administrator Kat Kuol, at work in his tiny office, says the village’s population grew to 10,000 after an influx of 6,000 people from Abyei in May 2011, when Sudanese troops invaded the region.
“It’s really difficult here as the people that ran away don’t have food and accommodation. All the food stocks and what the UN was providing is now lost,” he said.
Sudan’s occupation prompted more than 100,000 Ngok Dinka, the region’s main permanent residents, to flee southwards. Sudanese troops remain in Abyei, despite a September agreement for them to leave. Some 3,800 troops of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) are also deployed there.
“The people here had a small amount of food and space, and then when their relatives [from Abyei] came, they used it; then the livestock were sold for food,” said Kat Kuol.
According to the latest Abyei update published by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group, a few thousand Ngok Dinka have returned to the region, although movement is fluid, with many people travelling back and forth, to assess the state of their property and overall security.
Imminent rains mean “it is unlikely that large-scale returns will occur before the next dry season in October/November 2012,” the update said, adding that any such population movement also depended on the withdrawal of Sudanese forces.
In the village of Nyintar, near Abothok, Aciei Lual, one of the displaced, said in Abyei she used to grow maize, sorghum, groundnuts and beans to feed her family and earned around US$30 selling the rest.
Since fleeing, she says she has been feeding her seven children on lalop, a small bitter fruit, and whatever she can get from kind villagers.
Andrea Anselmi, an official (“economic security delegate”) with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said these villages were facing huge food shortages. “Almost all the residents [of Abyei] moved south … so most of these people didn’t cultivate last year, so they didn’t have a harvest or they don’t have seeds now to cultivate this year… I asked whether they had had a harvest, and there were only some women – not more than 20 or 30 people out of some 220 families – that answered yes.”
Survival options limited
Most people have been relying on the help of relatives or the kindness of strangers, but with the rainy season coming and stocks depleted, survival options in these villages are running out.
“They were fishing but at the moment the river is almost dry. They rely on wild vegetables and wild fruits, and in many places they are just collecting firewood and making charcoal to sell these things to the market,” Anselmi said of the displaced community, which includes many women recently widowed.
Lual said her brother-in-law was shot dead as the family fled her home and that she is too traumatized to go back to Abyei until there is peace.
“I saw people falling left and right… and I could not tell from the people who fell whether they died or were injured. I just prayed to God that it would not be my time,” she said.
“After what I’ve seen in Abyei, I’m not ready to go back there.”
She admits her family depends solely on cultivation and that “if there are no seeds, we cannot have any kind of life.”
ICRC has distributed seeds and tools to over 2,300 households in 15 villages near Abyei to try and help some 15,000 residents and displaced people rebuild their lives.
The organization has also distributed half rations of staple grains, oil and sugar for up to three weeks to prevent people eating the vegetable and grain seeds and to give them energy to plant.
Aciei Arop, whose family of five has been living on one cup of sorghum a day, says she can now start rebuilding her life.
“It will change my life as I’m going to cultivate. When the harvest comes I will get a variety of items to eat at home, and the rest I can sell so that I can save my life”, she said, slowly hauling the sacks of maize and sorghum home while others guarded her precious seeds.
“After all I’ve got now, it’s sure that I can cook for myself, I’m ready to go and cultivate”, she said.
Arop said many of her relatives were still missing after the family heard gunfire and fled, and that until she is sure it has stopped, Nyintar is her home.
In Abothok, Amou Manyuol said she wanted to go back to Abyei, where there used to be enough clean water and food for everyone, despite the fact that she lost three brothers there.
“My three brothers were killed when we were escaping. We were taking off from our home when the bomb landed in between us and they were killed right away on the spot…
“Life in Abyei before was good, and now we are suffering. We are now depending on relief from organizations like ICRC,” she said, as some of the hundreds of other women waiting for food distributions crowded around nodding their assent.