Agok: State of Limbo in South Sudan

By Peter Orr

Refugees International traveled last week to Agok, on the southern side of the Kirr River, to look into the living conditions of tens of thousands of displaced Abyei residents. When Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) troops attacked Abyei Town in May of this year – before South Sudan became fully independent – about 100,000 people fled to this small town and farther south into Warrap and neighboring states. The SAF attacks and the exodus of Abyei’s population served to further delay the Abyei Referendum, whereby residents would decide whether to remain part of Sudan or be incorporated into the South.

In June, Sudan and South Sudan signed an accord (the Addis Ababa Agreement) to halt the fighting. That same month, the UN Security Council called for the demilitarization of the Abyei Area and deployed a peacekeeping force known as the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). But at this point the demilitarization has slowed, and the remaining troops and landmines are preventing the return of civilians.

RI spoke with many displaced in Agok. Aluel D. fled Abyei Town with her husband and seven children, as well as her aunt and her three children. “We ran to Twic County [Warrap State] and first stayed under a tree. Then we came back as far as Agok and are living here in these rakoubas,” she said, gesturing at the basic hut structures that serve as her family’s temporary home. “But staying here is a problem, as the owner [who fled farther south to the city of Wau] will soon come back and we will be left without any shelter.”

Aluel wants to return to Abyei Town, but not before the SAF troops and landmines are removed. “But we will go back if there is security and the administration is there,” she said. Unfortunately, Aluel knows all her belongings in Abyei are gone, and that her home there has burnt down.

Many displaced are also suffering from a lack of food. “Before, World Food Programme (WFP) was giving food, but the rations are finished,” Aluel said. “The last time we received [rations] was August.” When asked how they manage, Aluel and her neighbors told us that some of them “have relatives who are farmers [in the Agok area] who give us some sorghum,” the staple grain here. Others sell tea in the market – “but you have to have money to set up shop.”

Another woman RI met, Allatch M., described what happened to her family during the attack on Abyei Town in May. “We heard bombing and shooting in the town, so we ran without anything," she said. "After we arrived here [in Agok], we were told that my husband was killed. So we could not run further, even though people in Agok ran further south.” 

Near the main market in Agok, we met Mary B. “My home is in Abyei. We ran up to Kwajok [in Warrap State], but the situation was not good there,” she said. “So we came to Agok. There was no shelter, so we stayed in a school until we were chased out by the government.” Now Mary lives in a simple lodge near the market, as she has not been able to get a plot of land – or the materials to build something on it. As for returning to her home, she told us, “Only if SAF leaves can I go back to Abyei – otherwise I cannot take my children to Abyei.”

Out by Agok’s little-used airstrip, we met a group of people receiving small amounts of food aid – corn kernels sent by the South Sudanese government. Once divided amongst its chosen recipients, the corn will only last two days at most. WFP is doing its best to bring in more food, but the number of people dependent on food rations (and the length of time they need them) has exceeded WFP’s expectations. And because the Abyei crisis has lasted through the rainy season, Abyei’s residents have not been able to cultivate their fields, so food shortages will continue into next year.

With the UNISFA peacekeeping mission building to full strength, there is hope that the Abyei Area will finally be demilitarized and demining efforts will begin in earnest. Aid workers in Agok have already noticed that the population of Agok has significantly increased in the last month, as more displaced from Abyei arrive. They are eager to know if it will soon be possible to cross the Kirr River and return to their homes.

Independent aid organizations and UN agencies, whose presence here has been crucial, will follow Abyei’s displaced back across the river when the time comes. And at that point, there will be a need not only for food assistance and basic services, but also a considerable effort to rebuild a traumatized community.