60,000 people fled during and after fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the politically disputed town of Abyei in May 2008, in which SAF and SAF supported militia also deliberately killed civilians and carried out massive looting and destruction of the town. More than half the homes in Abyei were burned to the ground and the market was completely destroyed. The parties reached an agreement to restore security on June 7, but have been slow to implement it. Meanwhile tens of thousands of civilians are still internally displaced, and the area remains tense.
Two months after the fighting, the number of civilian fatalities and the circumstances of their deaths are still unknown. A full and independent investigation into the alleged violations has so far not been possible because SAF forces restricted access to Abyei in the weeks following the fighting. In addition the National Congress Party (NCP) and the SPLM - the dominant parties in central government and the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) respectively have made no significant efforts towards establishing accountability for human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) in Abyei. Displaced people, however, are vocal in their call for accountability.
The political and administrative status of oil-rich Abyei is one of the most contentious outstanding issues in the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the 2005 agreement between Khartoum and the SPLM that brought an end to 20 years of civil war. Abyei, an area populated by ethnically Southern Sudanese Ngok Dinka, and on a seasonal basis by Arab Misseriya cattle-herding nomads, remains a potential flashpoint as Khartoum, GOSS and local communities position themselves ahead of a local referendum scheduled for 2011. The referendum will decide whether Abyei will join Southern Sudan or will remain part of South Kordofan state (administratively part of the North). Trouble in Abyei has the potential to upset the consolidation of peace between Northern and Southern Sudan.
Human Rights Watch interviewed scores of Dinka witnesses who fled South from Abyei, but was not able to physically access populations to the north of Abyei. The eye-witness testimony collected by Human Rights Watch is therefore largely reflective of the Dinka Ngok experience. Witnesses who fled from Abyei told Human Rights Watch that SAF soldiers shot civilians as they ran and detained and then arbitrarily killed others. Their testimony suggests that at least 18 civilians were killed in the fighting. In the days that followed the fighting, government soldiers and Misseriya militia looted and torched the market and civilian houses in Abyei town. By May 17 all of the market and more than half the homes in Abyei were completely destroyed, yet the destruction and looting continued into late June. Soldiers and militia also robbed and severely damaged the compounds and property of UN agencies and NGOs who had been supporting post-conflict reconstruction and humanitarian assistance in Abyei.
Almost the entire population of Abyei fled. While some 10,000 fled to the north, the rest some 50,000 people fled south to Twic County in Southern Sudan. In mid July they were still living in temporary shacks or crowded into homes with other families. Many told Human Rights Watch they are unwilling to return until the Khartoum government fully withdraws its SAF military forces from the town.
In the aftermath of the fighting political representatives from Northern and Southern Sudan signed an agreementthe Abyei Roadmap to restore security in Abyei. However, implementation has been slow. Delays by both sides in withdrawing troops and agreeing on a new Abyei administration threaten to undermine the delicate process of restoring peace and security in Abyei. On July 7, 2008 an SPLA soldier shot and injured a UN military observer and a SAF monitor in Agok, Twic County, raising the specter of renewed violence.
In the run up to and during the fighting the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) was severely hampered in its ability to protect civilians and to support implementation of the CPA. This was the result of inherent limitations in the UNMIS mandate, lack of sufficient personnel and resources, and movement restrictions imposed by both SAF and the SPLA. Displaced civilians told Human Rights Watch they had lost confidence in the ability of UN peacekeepers to provide protection for them.
The United Nations and governments with influence, who reacted rapidly and vehemently to the outbreak of fighting in Abyei, should now maintain pressure on the two sides to implement the Abyei Roadmap in full. UNMIS should urgently deploy a strengthened contingent of troops to Abyei to assist in implementation of the Roadmap and provide protection for civilians in accordance with a robust interpretation of UNMIS mandate.