Page last updated at 09:14 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

Uneasy peace in Sudan ghost town

Ashes of Abyei

By Amber Henshaw
BBC News, Abyei

Four years after the signing of a peace deal to end two decades of conflict between north and south Sudan, the disputed central town of Abyei resembles a ghost town.

Two bouts of fighting last year drove most of the population away and even threatened to reignite the bloody civil war.

The guns may be silent at the moment, but the clashes in May and at the beginning of December showed how fragile the situation remains in the key, oil-rich area.

The wasteland of burnt-out huts, smashed bottles and twisted metal remains one of the most prized and fought over pieces of land in Africa's largest country.

Trader Gabriel Deng
I came back because this is my home and I had to come back. But life is not good
Trader Gabriel Deng
Just a few kilometres away lies some of Sudan's most lucrative oil fields and a pipeline that funnels oil to the Red Sea coast.

When the Comprehensive Peace Deal to end the civil war was signed on 9 January 2005, the two sides could not agree on the boundary for Abyei.

They are still at loggerheads over the issue and the matter has been handed over the International Court of Arbitration.

But while the two sides wait for a judgment from The Hague, the situation on the ground remains unstable and precarious.

The most serious violence in May was sparked by a minor argument at a checkpoint which escalated into all-out conflict between soldiers from the mainly Muslim, Arabic-speaking north and the Christian and animist south.

The battle scars are still visible in the town: The skeletal remains of charred huts - homes and businesses - stand in the ashes of the old market place destroyed in the fighting.

Justified fears

The UN estimated that about 50,000 people fled their homes.

Map of Sudan

Trader Gabriel Deng was among the first to return to the town last August after the initial outbreak of fighting in May.

He was prompted by the setting up of new joint army and police units - made up of officers from north and south.

However, like other returnees, he hedged his bets and came without his family.

"I came back because this is my home and I had to come back. But life is not good," he said in early December.

"We lost everything in the fighting in May. We fear it might happen again."

As it turned out those fears were justified.

Just days later an argument in the town's new market between a soldier and trader led to fresh fighting when the police tried to intervene.

One international official said a full-scale war could have erupted if United Nations peacekeepers had not physically separated the two sides.

'Confidence knocked'

Those, like Mr Deng, who had just returned grabbed their few possessions and fled again.

It is only through the presidency we can succeed and it is through the presidency that we can fail
Abyei administrator Arop Moyak

"The fighting knocked people's confidence in Abyei very badly," said one UN official.

Others said they would not be encouraging residents to return to the town until the boundary for the area was finally agreed.

Although a few thousand people have now returned, the flare-up of violence has raised some serious issues.

One international aid worker said it had made people question the viability of the joint integrated police and army units, known as JIUs.

Northern and southern officers were supposed to patrol together, even share the same bases and learn to work together after decades of emnity.

They were also supposed to be an example to the surrounding communities that people from both sides of the divide could unite towards some sort of common good.

But when it came down to it in December, it was members of the JIUs who started fighting each other, according to most accounts.


Local officials further complain that, apart from the JIUs, they have been ignored by Khartoum, where leaders from north and south share power.

Since the introduction of the JIUs, the town's new administration has received next to nothing in terms of money or support from the national government.

Displaced Sudanese
Only a few thousand people have returned to Abyei since last May

The administration has submitted a request to the president for emergency funds and a budget for 2009.

They are still waiting for the presidency to approve the request and hand over the much-needed funds.

"It is only through the presidency we can succeed and it is through the presidency that we can fail," Abyei's chief administrator Arop Moyak said.

The only way the administration is keeping afloat is by borrowing money from the petty traders still in the town.

"The debt [with traders] is maybe 700,000 Sudanese pounds ($319,200, 210,400)," Mr Moyak said.

For now, he said, Abyei has no alternative but to keep knocking at Khartoum's door.

Some analysts are starting to question whether Sudan's leaders actually have the political will to resolve the Abyei problem - and keep the peace deal on track.

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