Conflict & Justice

Harrowing Tales of Abyei Refugees

Journalists have had a tough time getting into the southern Sudanese town of Abyei since troops from northern Sudan seized the area earlier this month. Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with reporter Rebecca Hamilton who recounts the harrowing tales of refugees who fled Abyei after the attack.

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Lisa Mullins: On the other side of the world tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, but for a different reason.  They escaped the fighting in the Abyei region of Sudan.  The African nation is scheduled to split into two in July, but Abyei which straddles the border of the north and south is in dispute.  Troops from northern Sudan seized the area earlier this month. Rebecca Hamilton is a special correspondent in Sudan for the Washington Post.  She is now in the souther Sudanese town of Juba.  She traveled to the Abyei region on Sunday.

Rebecca Hamilton: You could see still the smoke rising from the remains of buildings, and you can see the charred foundations of the mud, brick and grass hut homes that the people of Abyei were living in. The town now is almost entirely emptied of its civilian population, and those are the people estimated to be over 80,000 people that I’ve been interviewing.  And they mimic the sounds of the bombing –zoom, zoom — and so many of them once the cover of darkness fell, they all tried to flee.

Mullins: And remind us whether or not Abyei is northern or southern territory.  I mean this is one of the key issues in this north-south divide.

Hamilton: That’s right.  So the 2005 peace agreement that ended decades of civil war between north and south Sudan never managed to resolve the question of whether Abyei would belong to north or south.  Essentially both north and south are still claiming Abyei as their territory.

Mullins: Rebecca, one more thing, could you bring Washington into the mix here.  The U.S. was on track to remove Sudan from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.  At this point where does that stand and how much leverage does Washington have?

Hamilton: So the Sudanese government’s seizure of Abyei has complicated the Obama administration’s strategy in Sudan.  It had planned to remove Sudan from the state sposnors of terrorism list if Sudan finished all the steps in the peace agreement.  And Abyei was obviously an important part of the peace agreement.  So with the seizure of Abyei it will be difficult to remove them from that list, but it’s unclear what leverage the U.S. government has because already there are comprehensive diplomatic and economic sanctions on Sudan.  Short of military force, which nobody is advocating for, there is relatively little that the Obama administration has in terms of pressures that it can put on Khartoum.

Mullins: And Rebecca, those people with whom you spoke, those displaced from Abyei, especially the mothers and the children there, what happens to them now?

Hamilton: I guess I want to convey just how difficult the journey from Abyei was for these people.  I spoke to a woman, her name is Sunday, who is seven months pregnant and she fled with her five children.  And on the way one of them, her two year old son died she thinks of dehydration.  And she said I have to bury him and just keep running with my other children. So this is the sort of trauma that this group has faced.  They want very much to return home, but only if it is safe.

Mullins: Journalist Rebecca Hamilton spoke with us from Juba in southern Sudan.  She’s the author of the book Fighting For Darfur.

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