A UN internal report suggests "ethnic cleansing"; an already acute humanitarian crisis deepens as fuel for aid operations continues to be blocked by Khartoum; there is no meaningful diplomatic progress, even as the military threat to the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile grows; the UN Security Council "strongly condemns" Khartoum's invasion of Abyei and "demands" that the regime "withdraw immediately from the Abyei area." The Council" further demands the immediate withdrawal of all military elements from Abyei," and "calls on the Sudanese Armed Forces to ensure an immediate halt to all looting, burning and illegal resettlement."
The immediate military threat to the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile has diminished while the senior U.S. counter-terrorism official, John Brennan, has been in the region, including in Khartoum. But the threat already issued has not been withdrawn: on May 24 President al-Bashir declared that his army will respond "aggressively" to "provocations" by the SPLA and told Khartoum radio that he has given the "green light" to his forces to "respond to any violations" committed by the SPLA. He has insistently reiterated that "Abyei is North Sudanese land…our armed forces will not withdraw from this land." He has also declared that Khartoum is "prepared for a new war."
On May31, Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) spokesperson Al-Sawarmi Khalid Sa'ad echoed earlier warnings that the regime in Khartoum had given the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) until June 1to withdraw all troops from the Nuba and southern Blue Nile. Most SPLA troops in these regions consider themselves to be in their native region, and will not easily be disarmed, especially in the Nuba. Extremely bloody conflict looms, and may extend into the South and Unity State, where the most lucrative oil sites are located. Despite the impressive restraint shown to date by the Government of South Sudan (GOSS)—President Salva Kiir and the GOSS leadership—there can be little doubt that a military incursion into the South by the SAF would precipitate renewed civil war at the very moment in which South Sudan is scheduled to become an independent country.
An overview of recent events, up to May 27 (roughly one quarter of the present text):
By May 21 the military seizure of all of Abyei, including Abyei town, is largely completed. The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) reports (May24) on the details of the invasion revealed by satellite photography, including Khartoum’s use of military air assets.
May 24: Reports begin to emerge of widespread "organized looting" and destruction of Abyei town by Misseriya militia members, assisted by SAF soldiers. SSP ground photographs show "northern soldiers standing by as militia members load trucks full of looted food and other goods." This is confirmed in an SSP report of May 26, 2011, which uses satellite photography as well as ground photography from Abyei town. Both humanitarian food stores and medical supplies are among the targets of the looters, as UNIRIN reports (May 27, 2011):
"Facilities run by other UN agencies and NGOs in the town have also been targeted. 'Items looted include medical supplies, surgical equipment, non-food items and water and hygiene equipment. These supplies had been dispatched to Abyei town in recent weeks to respond to urgent needs of the town residents and the rural population of surrounding villages,' the UN Country Team in Sudan stated."
May 25: The New York Times reports in its lead paragraph on Abyei:
"After seizing a disputed town on the border of the breakaway region of southern Sudan on Saturday, the army of northern Sudan is now facilitating a relatively large influx of nomadic people into the area, according to new United Nations field reports. United Nations officials said the move could mean that the Sudanese government is trying to 'ethnically cleanse' the area, in a bid to permanently change its demographics and annex the town, Abyei, just weeks before southern Sudan is supposed to split off from the north and form its own country." (emphasis added)
This is the first of several accusations of "ethnic cleansing," including one made in a confidential UN internal assessment, first reported by the Associated Press on June3. The SSP also reports that, "there are indications of 'ethnic cleansing' in Abyei" (May29).
May 26: The U.S. declares that the military seizure of Abyei was "premeditated," while Khartoum scoffs at U.S. threats to continue sanctions and refrain from helping the regime obtain desperately needed external debt relief.
Misseriya militia forces in Abyei town fire 14 rounds at four UN helicopters. UNMIS spokeswoman Hua Jiang declares that, "Militia that appear to be Misseriya are moving southwards. Abyei town is deserted of civilians."
The SSP reveals (May 26) satellite photographic evidence showing, "the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) [are] equipped with heavy armor and artillery at the El Obeid Barracks, approximately270 miles from Abyei town, possibly preparing for deployment to southern areas. Based on analysis of available transportation logistics and the formation of the units, SSP has concluded that the forces there are capable of imminent forward movement."
Reports of highly distressed fleeing civilians, primarily women and children, become increasingly frequent and urgent. Many have left with almost nothing; all are at acute risk of dehydration, malnutrition, and water-borne diseases. Many were killed in the military seizure of Abyei; others have died on the way south.
A great many have fled as far as Turelei, 130 kilometers from Abyei; by May 26 one humanitarian report has 15,000 displaced people living in the open near the town (local officials use a much higher figure). Another 4,000 people are reported in the nearby village of Mayen Abun.
May 27: The UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) offers a devastating picture of the human and humanitarian consequences of Khartoum's brutal invasion of Abyei:
"'We have seen thousands of people—mainly women and children—carrying bags on their heads, or sitting on mats on the side of the road, exhausted by hours of walking. The populations of both Abyei and Agok [40km to the south] have been displaced and are spread out in several different areas: near Turalei, near Mayen-Abun and on the road to Agok,' said MSF head of mission Raphael Gorgeu.”
"'There are severe signs of dehydration among many children who are on the move. We are very concerned about the harsh conditions the displaced population has to endure on the roads. Their health condition can deteriorate rapidly if assistance is not delivered promptly,' he added."
"The International Organization for Migration, which is among many agencies responding to the crisis, noted that 'tracking and assessing the displaced population has been difficult because many people are still on the move or are hiding in the bush. The continued heavy rainfall has made some roads impassable and this has impeded access to areas where IDPs may be sheltering.'"
The Independent (UK) reports on May 28:
"On a visit to Turalei yesterday, the top U.S. official in southern Sudan, Barrie Walkley, said there was a 'perfect storm' creating a humanitarian crisis. Sudan's north is blockading border crossings, preventing food and fuel from getting to the south. Militias are attacking southern forces, and the northern army displaced tens of thousands of people by invading Abyei, he said."
The figure for displaced persons rises steadily, and is approximately 80,000 by June3.
Extending the Timeline for Abyei: May 27 – June 3, 2011
May 27: Concerns about the effects of seasonal rains, which are already heavy, mount steadily; IRIN reports:
"Seasonal rains are among several factors to have exacerbated the crisis sparked by the sudden flight of tens of thousands of civilians from the disputed Sudanese region of Abyei, say aid workers, who point to both short- and long-term repercussions. 'Most of the roads in Southern Sudan are not passable during the rains and so that will make the movement of food difficult,' World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Amor Almagro told IRIN."
The same dispatch also reported:
"'Longer-term food stability is a major concern,' added Almagro. 'This is the planting season and if people are not able to plant [because they are displaced] they will face shortages down the line and will require assistance for a much longer period of time than this lean season, when food from the previous harvest has run out.'"
Radio Netherlands reports on two UN casualties from Khartoum’s invasion of Abyei:
"According to an anonymous diplomatic source in Abyei, the attack on the town by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF or 'Northern army') was a complete surprise. Several mortar or tank shells have hit the compound during the attack, of which four exploded. Two Egyptian soldiers were injured and one UN vehicle was damaged."
May 28: The Satellite Sentinel Project reports on the "Intentional Destruction of Abyei Town":
"Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) has confirmed through the analysis of Digital Globe satellite imagery collected on 27 May the intentional destruction of approximately one-third of all civilian structures in Abyei town by the Government of Sudan and northern-aligned militia forces. SSP has documented multiple violations of international humanitarian law in Abyei town. These abuses can constitute war crimes, including violations of the Geneva Conventions, and in some cases they may represent crimes against humanity."(emphasis added)
SSP is able to confirm Khartoum's destruction of Banton Bridge, a key link between South Sudan and Abyei across the River Kiir/Bahr el Arab. A detailed account of the violations of international law represented by the photographic evidence (ground and satellite) is also provided by SSP.
May 29: Save the Children/UK estimates that "up to 35,000 children in Sudan's contested border region of Abyei are among the displaced. Deng Arop, the chief southern official for the Abyei area, "fears that unless the fuel crisis is resolved quickly, the rains will turn the roads to mud, and it will be impossible to deliver relief supplies. 'In a worst-case scenario, the bulk of the displaced will be cut off, ' he said. 'At that point, it will be very difficult to get them humanitarian assistance.'"
The lack of fuel is a recurring theme in accounts from UN agencies and nongovernmental humanitarian organizations. Khartoum has since the beginning of May closed off two of the three routes to the region by which fuel is transported to the South and Abyei (South Sudan has no refining capacity of its own, even as the vast majority of crude oil refined by Khartoum originates in the South).
May 30:High-level talks between senior officials from Khartoum and Juba fail to make any progress on Abyei as the NIF/NCP regime refuses to consider military withdrawal from the contested region.
May 31: The danger to those displaced from Abyei into Warrab State is unrelenting. Those who gathered at Agok have been attacked and fled further south; some have returned, but their situation is extremely tenuous. The UN High Commission for Refugees reports:
"'The UN team (that visited last week) saw a stream of civilians heading south towards and past Agok,' Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, said on Tuesday [May 31]. 'A number of villages just south of Abyei were burning. Many people feared that Agok itself might soon be attacked,' he added."(Agence France-Presse [dateline: Geneva], May31, 2011)
Bloomberg News reports:
"Sudan's army said it may attack any remaining Southern Sudan troops in the northern border states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, heightening tension before the south's independence in July. 'In these two states, any remaining southern forces north of the border after June 1 will become legitimate targets,' Sudanese army spokesman Al-Sawarmi Khaled said today [May 31]."
Again, a great many SPLA troops are from these two regions, which they consider home.
June 1: Khartoum proposes that an unspecified "African force" replace UNMIS; the regime has already formally declared on May 31that it will not allow the UN to renew the mandate for UNMIS in northern Sudan. No doubt Khartoum, in proposing such a force, has in mind the crippling weaknesses of the UN/AU "hybrid" force in Darfur (UNAMID).
The African Union, which the previous day (May 31) had celebrated an “agreement" on a demilitarized North/South border, is proved yet again to be capable mainly of wishful thinking. The “agreement," according to an AU statement, "establishes a Common Border Zone between North and South Sudan, which is to be demilitarised and jointly monitored and patrolled." But Khartoum quickly made clear that no agreement had in fact been reached:
"The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Sudan denied reports of a [May31] agreement with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) on establishing a demilitarized zone on the North-South borders…. The NCP-SPLM accord was brokered by the African Union High-Level implementation panel (AUHIP) for Sudan headed by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. 'The agreement paves the way for further negotiations on key security issues between the parties, to be convened by the AU Panel within the week,' an African Union statement said."
"However, the NCP media secretary Ibrahim Ghandour down played the AU's announcement, describing what was signed as a plan given to both sides as part of many on the table that could form the basis of a framework agreement. Ghandour stressed that the proposals submitted are still being discussed with none being endorsed yet." (emphasis added)
Such factitious optimism by Mbeki and company only makes meaningful negotiations more difficult.
Also on June1, the Satellite Sentinel Project declares in a press release:
"A bipartisan group of former civilian and military officials has affirmed the Satellite Sentinel Project's (SSP) analysis of visual evidence that the Government of Sudan allegedly committed war crimes during its occupation of the disputed region of Abyei. The officials include two former US State Department Special Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes, David Scheffer and Pierre Prosper; David Crane, the former Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone; and Michael Newton, the former Senior Advisor to the US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes."
David Scheffer, the distinguished former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, declares of the actions revealed in SSP photographic evidence:"They may also constitute crimes against humanity given the magnitude and apparent systematic character of destruction and forced displacement of civilians in Abyei."
Pierre Prosper, also a former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, "The imagery provided by the Satellite Sentinel Project contains evidence of actions by Sudan Armed Forces that may well constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity."
The predations and destructiveness of Khartoum's counterinsurgency war in Darfur are several times invoked as precedents for the actions of the Khartoum regime in Abyei.
June 2: A senior Abyei official estimates that approximately 100 civilians were killed following the May 20-21 invasion of the region. This figure does not include the many scores who had been killed in the months preceding the military incursion, nor does it include any mortality among those who have fled into South Sudan.
Reuters reports that Ethiopia will consider sending peacekeeping troops to Abyei in light of the request from Juba and the UN:
"Both Juba [the Government of South Sudan] and the United Nations have asked Ethiopia to send peacekeeping troops to Abyei, but no decisions will be taken unless Khartoum also asks for the forces to be sent, an Ethiopian official told Reuters."
It is highly unlikely that Khartoum will permit a robust military presence in Abyei so long as it intends to use its own military control of the region as leverage in negotiations with Juba on a range of issues (in addition to the status of Abyei itself, these include border delineation and demarcation, oil revenues, citizenship for Southerners in the North, and division of massive external debt).
June 3:"Ethnic cleansing"—what Samantha Power in writing about Bosnia calls "a kind of euphemistic halfway house between crimes against humanity and genocide" ("A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, page 483 [New York, 2002]). Whatever it means—and it is not a term of art in international law—Khartoum's actions in Abyei compel us again to make sense of this slippery phrase. Associated Press reports:
"A confidential United Nations report warns that the invasion by Sudan's military of the contested north-south region of Abyei could lead to 'ethnic cleansing' if the tens of thousands of residents who fled are not able to return. The UN human rights report--dated May 29 and marked 'Not For Public Citation or Distribution'—said the north's Khartoum government may have carried out a premeditated military plan to invade Abyei when Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, troops moved in May 21."
The justification for these fears is in large part a function of the immense humanitarian crisis precipitated by the actions in question. The situation is clearly growing more desperate by the day. As of June 1 the UN" estimates [ ] about 76,000 [have been displaced from Abyei and its surrounding villages]. The International Organization for Migration [IOM] has registered about 40,000 of those." The IOM also declares these people "are in urgent need of food, shelter and sanitation facilities."
The most comprehensive overview of the humanitarian crisis again comes from the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN):
"Warrap State in Southern Sudan is becoming the focus of efforts to assist thousands of people fleeing the disputed central-southern region of Abyei after it was attacked on 21 May by the northern Sudanese army, aid workers say. But the obstacles are considerable: it is the rainy season, many roads are impassable, soldiers have harassed aid workers, fuel is in short supply and it is sometimes difficult to identify who is displaced."
"'This operation is facing logistical challenges. In the weeks to come, with the advance of the rainy season, the challenges will become greater,' said Margherita Coco, who was responsible for the World Food Programme (WFP) sub-office in Abyei until the attack forced WFP to abandon its work there. She now works from Wunrok in Warrap State. On 1 June WFP put the number of registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) at more than 45,000; unofficial estimates indicate there are another 36,000 people on the road still trying to head for safety." (June 3, 2011)
This suggests a total displaced population of over 80,000 human beings, primarily women and children. The IRIN account also gives us some of the first interviews with the survivors of the Abyei invasion, and the threats faced even when fleeing to Agok to the south:
"The initial destination for those fleeing Abyei, mostly in great haste and with few provisions or spare clothing, was Agok-Anet, where they believed they would be safe until Sudanese army bombing forced them out. 'I was having a rest when I heard the planes,' said Nyandur Deng, a resident of Agok-Anet. 'Then I saw people running away so I took my six children and I left. My husband works in Khartoum.' Most of those fleeing Agok-Anet were women and children, the men staying behind to guard their homes or join Southern army."
"IDPs in Warrap State are sleeping outside, without shelter, despite it being the rainy season. 'We need plastic sheeting before food,' said Nunja, 15, translating for her mother. 'We've been sleeping under a tree since we arrived. We walked for three days. We need rest.'"
The lack of fuel for transportation is rapidly becoming a critical shortcoming in the humanitarian response:
"Another obstacle is the acute shortage of fuel. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), two of the main roads between north and south have been blocked [by Khartoum]. Petrol is imported from the north. 'We had 200 [liters] of extra fuel when we arrived onsite,' explained Oyukutu Valente, an official with Save the Children. 'We have just ordered an additional 400 [liters] from the International Organization for Migration [IOM], due to arrive by convoy from Juba.'"
"Agok Hospital, managed by the Swiss branch of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is treating some of the displaced who were unable to keep up. 'Most are children and the elderly, often abandoned by their families during their flight,' said Ines Hake, head of an MSF medical team. Patients mainly had dehydration symptoms, diarrhoea or lung infections after spending nights in the rain. Hake expects up to 200 patients a day at the hospital. 'People first try to [find] shelter and then food, ‘explained Raphael Gorge with MSF in Agok. 'It is only after that that they come in for treatment.'"
The UN Security Council, two weeks after Khartoum's military invasion began, today brought itself—after much internal squabbling—to "strongly condemn" that action, and make an explicit "demand":
"'The council demands that the government of Sudan withdraw immediately from the Abyei area. The council further demands the immediate withdrawal of all military elements from Abyei,' said the statement. 'The council calls on the Sudanese Armed Forces to ensure an immediate halt to all looting, burning and illegal resettlement.'" (Agence France-Presse [dateline: UN/New York], June 3,2011; emphasis added)
Here it may be useful to recall another "demand" the UN Security Council has made of Khartoum, this one concerning Darfur (one of many):
"[The UN Security Council] demands that the government of Sudan fulfill its commitments to disarm the Janjaweed militias [per the terms of the July 3, 2004 Joint Communiqué signed by the regime and Secretary-General Kofi Annan] and bring to justice Janjaweed leaders and their associates." (UN Security Council resolution 1556, July 30, 2004[paragraph 6]; emphasis in original)
This "demand" has gone unheeded for seven years, and even now the Janjaweed—often re-cycled into other military or paramilitary guises—continue to attack and destroy civilian villages, destroy food stocks, kill non-combatant civilians, and rape women and girls.
Khartoum's military takeover of Abyei will continue to put tens of thousands of civilians at acute risk. They cannot wait seven years for relief. And they are not "collateral damage, " to use the military euphemism that is so wholly inappropriate here. The displacement of these people from their homes and lands has been deliberate; their possible resettlement is being deliberately forestalled by various regime actions, including the settling of Misseriya Arabs throughout Abyei, making the status of the region a demographic fait accompli.
People are dying and may soon die in large numbers. Whatever "ethnic cleansing" means, presumably this is a conspicuous example.
Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.