World News A Photo Essay: Oil-rich and extremely poor: inside the forgotten ‘Abyei box’ –

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 29 October 2023

Unisfa peacekeepers carry a casualty – one of the Arab Misseriya pastoralist people – from north Abyei for hospital treatment.
Unisfa peacekeepers carry a casualty – one of the Arab Misseriya pastoralist people – from north Abyei for hospital treatment.

In this long-disputed region, stuck in limbo between between Sudan and South Sudan, people are grappling with the climate crisis, economic hardships and limited access to healthcare

29 Oct 2023 10.00 CEST

A UN armoured mine-resistant vehicle stands sentinel on the muddy road leading to Kadhian village south of the Kiir River. It’s a stark reminder of the perpetual danger lurking in this disputed oil-rich region spanning the border of Sudan and South Sudan.

A procession of young men, AK-47s slung over their shoulders, walk into the village between the UN vehicle and a “this is a demilitarised zone” warning sign. There are just a few people around. Among them, sitting near a tea shop, is payam chief Khom Dhalic, a representative of seven villages in the area, who describes life in “the box”, as the region is known locally.

The remnants of a Médecins Sans Frontières health post destroyed in fighting, in Wunpeth village, Abyei.
  • The remnants of an MSF health post destroyed in fighting, in Wunpeth village, Abyei

“The UN station their tanks here but when the attacks commence, they retreat. Lives have been lost, including women and children, and we endure sleepless nights drenched in fear. Many families have sought refuge far from here. This land, our ancestral home, lies fallow, it is too dangerous to farm. We survive on the leaves of the trees,” says Dhalic.

A camp for people displaced by fighting. Nyanyath Achueng says: ‘There have been 25 families here since our village was attacked a few months ago. Many were killed, including our chief. Some have died since from sickness. Now we shelter by the gates of the Unisfa compound for protection. The remains of our village are just 300 meters away but we daren’t stay there.’
  • Families live in makeshift shelters at a camp for those displaced by fighting

Hama Abaker and her daughter, Ashura Adem. Hama says: ‘Our village was attacked in the night, there was shooting everywhere. Soldiers came into our hose shooting. They killed my husband along with my daughter and my son. They were shot dead in front of us. We survived somehow. This happened in our village just outside Nyala.
  • Hama Abaker and her daughter, Ashura Adem

The Abyei region, rich in oilfields and lush pastures, has long been disputed. Its contentious status, exacerbated since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, has brought conflict and insecurity. The once-promised referendum in Abyei to decide if it would remain a part of Sudan, or restored to South Sudan, first included in the peace agreement that ended Sudan’s civil war in 2005, remains a distant dream, delayed by disputes over residency qualifications, leaving the region in perpetual limbo.

A UN-backed interim security force for Abyei (Unisfa) was deployed in 2011 and sought to maintain order until a referendum could be held, but political entanglements have stymied progress.

With attention focused on the outbreak of war in Sudan this year, Abyei continues to be overlooked. But as the Unisfa mandate nears renewal on 15 November at the UN security council, the hope persists that the international community will recognise Abyei’s plight and work toward a resolution.

A makeshift school at the Bok Chop IDP camp. The children lack pencils, blackboards and books and even enough mats to sit on the floor.
  • Children learn English at a makeshift school at the Bok Chop IDP camp

A decade of political gridlock has ensnared Abyei in a precarious situation, where the interests of South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and Sudan’s Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, align in maintaining the status quo. “For Kiir, any move risks alienating the Sudanese army, potentially sparking support for militia armies. Meanwhile, Burhan views Abyei as a means to control the Misseriya, Arab pastoralists who traverse the region annually,” says the writer and researcher Joshua Craze. “That’s important because the Misseriya are being recruited by the Rapid Support Forces – the main militia fighting against Burhan in the north.”

A family prepares food for the evening meal.
Leaves gathered from the bush are cooked. People here say they have no food and are going hungry on a regular basis.
Mary can sell one of these bundles of firewood for 200 South Sudanese pounds (about 20p). She can carry three bundles at a time, and she walks for more than an hour each way to do so.
  • A family scrape together food for an evening meal (top); cooking leaves to eat; Mary sells firewood for about 200 South Sudanese pounds a bundle, and walks for more than an hour each way to do so

Amid this turmoil, thousands grapple with displacement, intensified by historical conflicts, the mounting climate crisis, economic hardships and limited access to essential healthcare.

This is an international armed conflict and there is no respect for international humanitarian law in the area
Gabrielle Powers, MSF

The reduction in donor funding, particularly from the UK, has had severe consequences in South Sudan. An internal UK government report in August this year revealed the impact of budget reductions on the most vulnerable. Medical services are collapsing, and concerns loom over growing gaps in humanitarian aid. In April 2022, the Health Pooled Fund (HPF), the largest healthcare programme in South Sudan, had its budget slashed by 24%. This resulted in the immediate suspension of funding to about 220 of the 797 public health facilities it was supporting, and led to the closure of vital services including all surgeries at the main hospital in Kuajok.

Victims of a gunshot and knife attack in the surgical ward.
Aguek Kout, village chief, South Sudan
  • Victims of a gunshot and knife attack at the surgical ward; Aguek Kout, village chief, who says he lost all his cows in a raid

Attacks remain a constant threat. Suspected fighters from Twic county in South Sudan recently struck an Abyei town market, leaving 14 dead and 17 injured, just 1km from Unisfa’s main base. Before that, three villages south of Abyei town fell victim to alleged Twic attacks, resulting in four fatalities and seven injuries. Unisfa peacekeepers were engaged, with three sustaining injuries.

An influx of people escaping war-torn Sudan, many without support, has introduced new challenges. Measles has surged within these communities, and malaria’s impact on vulnerable children is devastating. Makeshift shelters, cobbled together from sticks, leaves and cloth, offer little respite from harsh conditions, while food shortages persist.

A crowd wait at the emergency department of Mayen Abun hospital, in Twic county.
  • People wait to be seen at the Mayen Abun hospital

Ding Aguek, aged two, has been struggling to breathe. His mother Athar Ring says his family were very worried but, after receiving treatment, the boy makes a full recovery.
  • Ding Aguek, aged two, struggles to breathe. He has been very unwell and his family were very worried but thanks to treatment he received, he makes a full recovery

Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) is supporting two hospitals in Abyei town and Mayen Abun, just across the border in Twic county, to maintain support for the displaced people. They say that access is very difficult and there is a great humanitarian need in the region. “People avoid talking about [the region]; this is an international armed conflict and there is no respect for international humanitarian law in the area,” says MSF Geneva’s former head of mission Gabrielle Powers. “There will always be tough dilemmas to navigate through, but lifesaving and protection of civilians should be the norm.”

About 2,000 families shelter in one of the IDP camps in Abyei town. Some fled the fighting in the town of Agok; others came to escape the flooding in neighbouring Unity state.

The Bok Chop IDP camp. Chief Bol Wol Kiir. says: ‘We came here from Amiet, north of here, after repeated attacks. Misseriya surrounded the area then came in shooting. At least 24 people were killed. More than 600 families fled to Abyei - and since then others have come too, some have come from the fighting around Agok.’
  • The Bok Chop IDP camp. Chief Bol Wol Kiir says more than 600 families fled to Abyei from Amiet, and others fled fighting in Agok

“The area is very overcrowded, and people are still arriving,” says Akur, a single mother with her seven children next to their makeshift shelter. “It was OK at first but since April we have been suffering more. New arrivals don’t get ration tokens, they can’t get help with shelter and food. So, we take care of them even though we don’t have enough ourselves. This is additional pressure we can’t live with, but people can’t eat alone, we should eat together. We have to share what little we have.”

The older generation came from Warrap in South Sudan originally, but everyone else was born in Sudan. They worked on a plantation growing sorghum and millet.
  • Setting up mosquito nets for the night ahead.



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