‘How can I celebrate independence when my home is burning?’

The Times of London
Wau, Southern Sudan

Nyanyar Ayuel lost her grandson in the chaos of her escape from Abyei six weeks ago after Sudanese tanks and troops occupied the town.

The teenager had gone to fetch water but, as bullets fizzed through the local market, she had no time to search for him. Mrs Ayuel, frail and blind in one eye, clung to her 11-year-old granddaughter’s arm and fled with thousands of others, scattering into the bush, running for their lives.

“I must go back to look for him, to discover if he is alive or dead,” she said, her voice nearly inaudible, her hand clutching her granddaughter’s as if afraid that she might also lose her.

Aid workers are trying to trace the boy and others who were separated from their families but no one has seen Mrs Ayuel’s grandson. “It’s a difficult case; it could take days or weeks,” Philip Deng, of Save the Children, said.

Southern Sudan becomes an independent country this weekend but, for as many as 100,000 who fled the disputed border region and live in temporary camps in the south, there is little to cheer.

“How can I celebrate when my place is burning?” asked Sebit Khamis, a 24-year-old police officer who is among those queueing for food handouts. Like the others, he left Abyei with nothing but the clothes on his back and whatever money was in his pockets.

A health worker sitting at a wooden desk beneath a hastily erected tin lean-to said that he had seen many cases of diarrhoea, eye and respiratory infections and malnutrition. So far, there is neither measles nor cholera but, with the severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in this camp and others, an outbreak would spread quickly. There are ten long-drop toilets and two freshwater boreholes for more than a thousand people here.

Abyei, claimed by north and south, is just one potential trigger for more conflict. Khartoum and Juba have failed to agree on how to share international debt and oil revenues from southern fields; they cannot even agree where the border will be.

The decision this week to allow the negotiations, and so the uncertainty, to drag on beyond independence has disappointed Western backers of the 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of civil war.

The invasion of Abyei is typical of the ruthless brinkmanship practised by President al-Bashir during his 22 years in power. It was not the first time that he had seized the town.

Living in one of hundreds of stick-framed huts covered with plastic sheeting on land outside the town of Wau was Amger Ngor, who has five children. She left everything when she fled — her small shop, her home, furniture and clothes — just as she had done three years before.

This time was worse. “Then, they did not use Antonovs [bombers] or fighter planes,” she said. She will return to Abyei once a promised battalion of 4,200 Ethiopian peacekeepers is deployed but, once again, she expects to find her home burnt and possessions stolen.

The Sudanese Air Force has been sent more recently over the restive northern state of South Kordofan and ground forces are reported to be massing there for an offensive in the Nuba mountains. Khartoum claims to be bombing fighters of the northern branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The former rebels fought alongside the predominantly black African south against the ethnically Arab north during the civil war, and refuse to disarm.

Aid workers and church leaders say that civilians are being targeted in an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” the north’s most important oil-producing state once the south secedes.

The UN blames the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the SPLA-North for blocking access to civilians trapped by the fighting, as reports of atrocities and looting continue to emerge. An estimated 75,000 people have fled the fighting there.

Thabo Mbeki, the former President of South Africa, presided over an agreement signed in Addis Ababa last week to demobilise or integrate the Nubian soldiers into the SAF, raising hopes of an end to the fighting in South Kordofan.

Days later Mr al-Bashir appeared to renege on the deal, declaring that his troops would fight on “until they cleaned the state of rebels”.

Observers forecast similar troubles in Blue Nile, another northern state with oil and a partly southern population.

Latest UN figures showed that conflicts had killed more than 1,800 people in the south so far this year and forced 260,000 from their homes. Among them is Nydak Luarbong, a 47-year-old mother of six from Abyei. Despite the trauma of displacement she is determined to return to the region. “It is my homeland,” she said. “I have to go back even if they chase us again. We have to go.”