Abyei Violence Prompts Mass Exodus, Fuels Anger on the Ground

In the aftermath of a wave of violence in Abyei that left over 100 dead and saw the systematic burning of three villages just north of Abyei town, tens of thousands of civilians have fled while residents still in town are angry, disillusioned, and anxious, according to on-the-ground reporting and visuals from Enough photographer Tim Freccia. Freccia, who has been based in Abyei since violence broke out early last week, reports that the situation in the contested and highly-volatile border region today is relatively quiet, if fraught with tension.

In footage shot by Freccia, residents old and young are seen walking the streets of Abyei town armed, while the stalls and thoroughfare of a market are abandoned. Frustration among Abyei residents broke loose on Friday, during a meeting that U.N. officials held with northern and southern leaders to address the recent violence. The footage depicts residents angrily demonstrating outside of the U.N. building, chanting and throwing rocks to break down the compound’s gates. Hundreds of people were reportedly involved and a dozen U.N. vehicles were damaged.

“The civilians here have no way to protect themselves. And, nobody’s protecting them,” said Omar Ismael, a trader, in the video.

Signs carried by protestors indicated exasperation at the non-implementation of the many internationally-guaranteed agreements on Abyei that have been struck in recent years. According to Freccia, protestors expressed anger at the presence of northern leader Salah Gosh at the meeting, as well as the lack of U.N. intervention during the violence. One relative of a former southern army spokesperson was also reportedly attacked.

“They are fed up,” Freccia said.

Violence first broke out in Todach, Abyei early last week, precipitating a series of clashes between Misseriya militias and southern police in three other villages. Southern officials allege that the militias were abetted by Khartoum-supported forces. Satellite imagery confirming the burning of two villages, Maker Abior and Todach on Friday, were followed by reports on Saturday that a third village, Tajalei, was also burned down. According to Satellite Sentinel Project, or SSP, the satellite images demonstrate intentional destruction of all three villages. SSP reports that at least 300 buildings, the majority of which were civilian residences, were burned in Tajalei.

Tens of thousands of residents, largely women and children, have fled southward from Abyei town and its environs, in response to the violence and rumors of an imminent attack on town. In these photos, Freccia captures the faces of the many civilians leaving town as well as those who remain.

The U.N.-hosted meeting on Friday produced an agreement that bolsters security arrangements in Abyei that the two parties agreed to in January. The January agreement was only partially implemented and the deployment of extra security forces to the region did not prevent the recent outbreak of violence. Friday’s agreement offers yet another temporary fix to hostilities in Abyei and is unlikely to be fully implemented.

A political solution to Abyei remains urgently needed; according to AP, talks resumed today in Khartoum. But, growing anger and disillusionment seen on the ground among residents will make both efforts at local reconciliation with the Misseriya, and a national agreement on the status of Abyei, increasingly more difficult.