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Image by Rebecca Hamilton. Sudan, 2011.

Katerina Nyakat Monjok can see the sprawling compound of the U.N. Mission in Sudan from her home in Abyei. But Monjok, 37, says her proximity to the peacekeeping base did not provide any protection when the Sudanese government attacked her town on May 21.

The attack, which witnesses say came first from the air and was then followed by a ground assault, has caused the mass displacement of Abyei's permanent residents, the Ngok Dinka.

Abyei town, which lies in a contested and fertile border region of the same name, was long predicted to be a flashpoint that could derail progress toward the peaceful separation of Sudan into two countries this summer. Following a January referendum, in which southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to secede from the north, South Sudan will gain independent nationhood on July 9.

The status of Abyei, which both north and south claim ownership over, was supposed to be resolved before July through political negotiation, after a separate referendum for Abyei was postponed indefinitely. The south argued that only the Ngok Dinka, the non-Arab group who are loyal to the south and live in Abyei year-round, should vote. The north argued that the Misseriya, an Arab nomadic group who pass through the area to graze their cattle every dry season, should also vote, believing this would secure Abyei for the north.

Until the May 21 attack, a joint north-south administration was responsible for the area under an arrangement that U.N. peacekeepers were monitoring. But since the attack, the Sudanese government has taken control of Abyei town, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has declared that "Abyei is northern Sudanese land." Khartoum says it was provoked into seizing the town after an ambush on its soldiers by the southern forces of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, a claim the government of South Sudan denies.

After the attack, the United Nations flew an additional company of Indian peacekeepers into Abyei to bolster the Zambian contingent that was already in place, according to U.N. spokeswoman Hua Jiang. Viewed from the air on Sunday, May 29, two U.N. armored personnel carriers could be seen positioned by a bridge that the Sudanese army destroyed, and the UNMIS base was the most active part of a town that is now largely deserted.

But those who fled say they needed that additional U.N. presence during the attack.

Like many of the displaced I have interviewed in recent days, Monjok says her first indication of a coming attack was the sound of bombing, which she heard on May 19. But unlike many others, she did not leave at that time, because she thought they would not bomb her house, since it was so close to the UNMIS base.

The following evening, ground forces entered Abyei. "I was washing clothes when it happened" said Monjok from a dusty courtyard in Wau, the capital of Western Bahr el-Ghazal state in South Sudan, where tens of thousands of Abyei's displaced have fled. "There were shots coming from both sides. I saw men on motorbikes" she recalled. "They shouted, 'Allahu Akbar!'['God is great!'] and 'We have seized Abyei!' "

Monjok ran for cover in bushes just off the road, and from that vantage point she saw Sudanese army tanks rolling into Abyei on Saturday night. Once darkness fell, she began a journey of four days, without food or water, to reach safety in Wau. Now she is one of an estimated 80,000 Abyei residents displaced across the northeastern states of South Sudan.

U.N. peacekeepers have been stationed in Abyei since 2005 as part of a 10,000-person deployment in Sudan to monitor the peace agreement between north and south. Their mandate from the U.N. Security Council includes a provision for the protection of civilians, "as it deems within its capabilities."

The people of Abyei are scathing in their denunciation of the peacekeepers' performance, both during the 2008 violence and in the latest attack. "When the Sudanese army invaded, they retreated to their bunkers," said Asha Abbas Akuei, who represents Abyei in the South Sudan Legislative Assembly. "Three years ago, and now the same again," she added with frustration.

Abyei is not the only place where the deployment of peacekeepers has not met the expectations of the local population. A separate peacekeeping mission in the western region of Darfur, a joint deployment of the United Nations and the African Union known as UNAMID, has also been criticized for failing to live up to its civilian protection mandate.

However, it may be that the problem is with the expectations more than the performance of the peacekeepers.

Former head of U.N. peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guéhenno says he doubts whether even a strong peacekeeping force could have prevented the violence of May 21. "Peacekeepers can deter a limited threat, but they don't have the capacity to address by force a strategic challenge to a peace process" he said in an emailed statement.

The current UNMIS deployment may have little more than a month left to prove itself. Earlier this week, Sudan's envoy to the United Nations, Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, presented the U.N. secretary-general with a letter saying that UNMIS would not be welcome in Sudan once the country splits in two on July 9.

U.N. spokesman Michel Bonnardeaux says that if the current mandate of UNMIS cannot be extended, then the "protection of civilians and confidence building between parties [in Abyei]" will be achieved through a "successor mechanism." On May 31, the Sudanese government laid down its bid for what such a mechanism would look like, proposing that the current deployment in Abyei be replaced with "forces that are more efficient and of an African nature." Whether this would be a hybrid operation, akin to UNAMID in Darfur, is unclear from the proposal, but the Ethiopian government has offered to provide troops to a future deployment if both Khartoum and Juba, the southern seat of government, agree.

In South Sudan, any expectations once harbored about peacekeepers providing protection seem already to have shifted. When questioned on the proposed Ethiopian deployment, Phillip Agur, a spokesman for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, was skeptical. "Such African peacekeepers were already in Abyei when it was attacked and occupied, so what will a different group do?" he asked.

I asked Monjok whether she wanted to return to Abyei, and like almost everyone else I interviewed, she said she did. However, she would only return if she was sure it would be safe. "Could peacekeepers make you feel safe?" I asked. She listened to the translation, then looked at me for a moment. "Only the SPLA can protect us now" she replied.

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"Sudan in Transition” brings in-depth coverage of the cultural, political, economic and legal challenges that loom as Sudan lurches towards likely partition.

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