Abyei: Amidst New Conflict, Lives Disrupted

Francis Nyok Koryom and his family outside the tukul they built after the 2008 Abyei violence destroyed their home. Image by Rebecca Hamilton. Sudan, 2010.

The capital of South Sudan has a very different feel from the jubilant town it was just a few months ago after a successful vote for independent nationhood. The rapid deterioration of the prospects for a smooth transition to a two-state Sudan in July comes after the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) seized the contested town of Abyei over the weekend, displacing the entire civilian population. Since then, reports of burning and looting by pro-northern militias suggest that even if Abyei’s residents are eventually able to return, they will be starting from scratch. And this will not be the first time.

The 2008 violence that razed the town previously was still very much part of the consciousness of Abyei residents– something that was made vivid to me by a schoolteacher, Abraham, in Abyei last year. It was October 2010 and he gave me a tour of Abyei that was as much about what the town looked like before 2008, as what we could see in front of us in 2010. I wonder where he is now? And what about Bulbul Deng, who was beaten by northern soldiers on his way home to Abyei from the north late last year? Like many in Abyei, he swore that if the town was attacked again he would stay and fight. But he was probably not imagining that the attack would be coming from the air, with the full force of the Sudanese Armed Forces backing it up.

At the forefront of my mind right now is Francis Nyok Koryom, who invited me into the home he rebuilt after his original home was destroyed in the 2008 violence. I took up his invitation early one morning, before the officials I had to meet that day would be at their workplaces. He and his wife were in the midst of a weekday morning get-the-kids-ready-for-school routine that would be familiar to parents worldwide. His 6-year-old daughter, in her bright blue school uniform, was complaining to her mom, who was simultaneously dealing with a crying baby, about her 9-year-old brother, who was annoying her for reasons that were not apparent to anyone else. His son, the 9-year-old, was acting like the model child–which may have in fact been what was making him so annoying to his sister! In any case, as they eventually brushed their teeth, packed their bags, and headed off down the road to school, it was a nice reminder of the persistence of normality, even for a family who had lost everything just two years earlier.

There are no flights right now to Agok, which is where the residents of Abyei first fled to after the violence. Since then they have headed further south, fearing that Agok will be attacked as well. So tomorrow I fly to Wau, and then try to make my way north from there by road to reach the displaced–hopefully finding Francis Nyok Koryom and his family safe among them.