Letter From Abyei: Neither North Nor South

Where A New Sudanese Civil War Could Begin

Courtesy Reuters

"We have been made promises time and time again" said Deng Arop, the chief administrator of Sudan's contested Abyei region, referring to the many unimplemented international agreements on the status of this area straddling what may soon be the border between North and South Sudan. "What options do the people of Abyei have left?" he asked me as he juggled incoming security updates on two cell phones.

In the past two weeks, clashes north of Abyei have left 33 people dead. Several buses full of southern Sudanese returning to vote in the south's self-determination referendum have been attacked on the road from Khartoum to Abyei, leading to road closures, which have generated food and fuel shortages in the town of Abyei. Moreover, an annual migration of people and cattle that regularly leads to tension between nomadic herdsmen and the area's year-round residents recently began. Exacerbating these immediate tensions is the looming question of whether Abyei will belong to the north or the south in the likely event that Sudan splits in two.

As southern Sudanese await the final referendum results, the people of Abyei find themselves in a precarious position. According to the 2005 peace agreement that ended the 22-year civil war between the Sudanese government in the predominantly Muslim north and rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the mainly Christian and animist south, the residents of Abyei should have had their own referendum to decide if they would be part of the north or south. But political deadlock between the SPLM and Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) over who qualified as a resident of Abyei for voting purposes stopped the Abyei referendum from proceeding.

The internationally supported agreements made by the SPLM and the NCP on Abyei all tend to reinforce the position of the Ngok Dinka, a southern people who live year-round in Abyei. The Ngok Dinka contend that those who reside here permanently, and not the northern nomadic Misseriya who pass through the area seasonally, should

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