The recent announcement that Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan Police have partially redeployed away from Abyei Area, confirmed by some local reports, will precipitate mass movements from Agok and other areas where the Dinka Ngok people were displaced following the invasion of Abyei in May 2011, back to Abyei town.
We should not assume that the displaced people will wait until the end of the rainy season to return to Abyei town. The safest bet is to assume that the numbers of those returning to their homes, and the speed with which they will return, will outstrip expectations.
In January and February 2012, NGOs were caught out by the return of 3-4,000 people to villages north of the River Kiir including Dungob, Wunrok, Leu, Tajalei, Marial Achak and Rumamer. These movements were organic, driven by the motivations of individual families (see HART's report for more information), but emotional attachment to the land was a significant driving force, consistently underestimated by foreign observers.
Even the local church did not expect numbers to rise above 5,000 before the rainy season. But an assessment in early May placed the number of returnees North of the River Kiir at 6,441 including villages to the North-West of Abyei town, such as Noong and Maker Abior, as well as villages to the East and South. As rains started, more flocked back to villages north of the Kiir and local reports estimated the numbers to be over 10,000 by the middle of May.
There is therefore a recent history of everyone - even local observers who understand the attachment the Dinka Ngok have to their homeland - underestimating the numbers of returnees. The vast majority of Dinka Ngok people lived in Abyei town prior to the invasion of May 2011 rather than in the surrounding villages, and it is Abyei town they wish to return to. News that Abyei town is now safe could provoke mass movements of displaced people.
The news that SAF had withdrawn from Abyei Area was greeted with scepticism and repeated allegations by the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) and by local sources that the numbers of Sudan Police had risen greatly and that some soldiers had simply exchanged uniforms. However, the UN confirmed that up to 300 soldiers had left the area, (previous estimates had placed the numbers of soldiers in the area at 350-400, so it seems likely that some soldiers did indeed exchange uniforms) and the Government of Sudan (GoS) later claimed that it had also withdrawn Sudan Police from Abyei town although they would remain in Diffra and some other areas. International governments should be careful to treat Sudan as they treated South Sudan and hold back congratulations until both SAF and police complete withdrawal from Abyei Area as a whole.
Yet withdrawal of forces and police from the town was the immediate priority for potential returnees. They believe, based on the experience of those who have already returned to their villages, that Ethiopian peacekeepers will prevent SAF from re-entering the town.
Reports differ as to how many have already returned to Abyei town (to live, rather than to survey) in the past week. Some say over a hundred, others say hundreds. Those who have visited confirm that SAF and Sudan Police are nowhere to be seen (although there are suspicions that they are hiding a few miles north of the town as well as in the areas the GoS admits they are deployed) and that it is safe to move around. Reports of mines may also have been exaggerated. The Catholic Church - completely destroyed - was visited. There had previously been allegations that mines had been laid around and within it, but this was not the case on 03 June 2012 when the local Catholic Priest visited it. Whether previous reports were scaremongering, or mine clearance has simply been effective, is not clear.
Assistance to returnees in villages north of the Kiir has so far been limited, with established NGOs reluctant to engage for a host of reasons. MSF have provided medical supplies to some villages, and indigenous organisation Kush with US Disaster Relief Aid provided tents for around 500 homes. Local people including church representatives organised a distribution of sorghum and seed to around 750 families, partly funded by the Grassroots Trust and private individuals in the UK, but this was intended for the 3-4,000 people who had returned in February, not the 10,000 people who have now returned and is certainly insufficient for the additional numbers who may now return. NGOs now need to up their game, but the UN could help by providing speedy confirmation that demining has been completed within the town and on key access routes to villages where returnees are living. There has been suspicion that political interference from pro-GoS sources has prevented these assurances from being given in the past.
The UN and international governments must also keep up pressure on the Government of Sudan to withdraw police (including SAF in police uniforms) completely from Abyei Area, and they must also ensure that the Government of Sudan is not allowed to hold up official confirmation of Abyei Administration any longer and an indigenous police force, the Abyei Police Service, is set up to prevent further cattle raiding. Since South Sudan Police withdrew from Abyei area, over 600 cattle have been looted. Delaying the formation of an Abyei Police Service could in a worst-case scenario lead to further cattle-raiding and victims taking matters into their own hands. UNISFA, the Ethiopian peacekeepers, have a mandate for civilian protection but they do not have a mandate for cattle protection.
The international community must also ensure that a stop-gap solution aimed at allowing people to return to their homes does not become a permanent solution. If self-determination is given lip-service but never implemented in Abyei, the events of May 2011 may repeat themselves once UNISFA's mandate has expired, just as 2011 was in some sense a repetition of 2008. Furthermore, the Government of South Sudan have made it clear that they will not hold back forever if the status of Abyei is not resolved, citing as a precedent their recent actions in Heglig.
Once the numbers of Dinka Ngok returning to their homes approach the levels present in early 2011, it is hard to imagine them holding back on their own declaration of self-determination, or even conducting their own referendum and inviting sympathetic organisations to observe and record the process, should no-one else be prepared to facilitate self-determination. This will create a headache for the international community, with the Government of South Sudan and neighbouring governments with strong trade links under pressure to recognise any declaration or locally organised referendum. Facilitating a referendum as promised in the Abyei Protocol would be the most effective way of avoiding this kind of headache. It cannot be assumed that the status of Abyei will be resolved by any deal on oil, because it may be that a deal on oil never materialises; agreement on who is to vote and how/when the referendum is to be carried out should be agreed in the upcoming talks in Addis Ababa as a priority and not left until any agreements on Abyei Administration and an Abyei Police Service are implemented.
Good news in Abyei is rare and something to be treasured. The partial redeployment of SAF and Sudan Police and the return of displaced people is certainly good news, but brings new challenges and raised expectations.
If anything, these developments make international involvement and progress more rather than less urgent.
Early in 2012, Tim Flatman joined families returning to Abyei nine months after they were first displaced. This report was written on behalf of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) on his experiences in Abyei, on the recent withdrawal of Sudan Armed Forces, and on the humanitarian challenges facing returnees.