• Press Release

Amnesty International Reports on Conditions for Civilians Who Fled South Sudan’s Abyei Region — First International Organization to Visit Region Since Violence Forced Tens of Thousands to Leave Homes in May

December 20, 2011

Human Rights Organization Urges United Nations to Step Up Security to Allow Civilians in Makeshift Camps to Return

(New York) — Tens of thousands of civilians in the disputed Abyei region of South Sudan are living in dire conditions in hastily set up camps or crowding with relatives, with food and water in scarce supply, Amnesty International reported today while urging the United Nations to step up security to allow stranded civilians to return to their homes more than six months after fighting broke out.

More than 100,000 people — virtually the entire population — were displaced by the violence in May. The continued presence of armed forces and militias and the danger posed by landmines are preventing them from returning.

Most of those displaced by the fighting are now dependent on international humanitarian organizations for shelter, food, water and medical treatment.

"We have hardly any food and nothing else," Angelina Aguir, a mother of two small children sheltering in a camp in the village of Mayen Abun, told Amnesty International. "I don't know what has happened to our home. We cannot go back so long as the army is there."

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's senior crisis response adviser, visited Abyei at the end of November — the first visit to Abyei by an international organization since May.

"The Sudanese Army and allied militia have driven virtually the entire population out of Abyei and burned down their homes so as to prevent their return," said Rovera. "Charred homes and the shells of looted buildings testify to the horrors that took place in Abyei, which is now a ghost town. Everything of any value has been looted, including humanitarian organizations' facilities. The only signs of life are the soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers."

What happened in Abyei has not been adequately investigated.  It is not clear how many people died, were injured or are still missing.

The United Nations must ensure that a proper investigation is carried out, said Rovera. In the meantime, it should release whatever information was gathered by the U.N. mission deployed at the time in Abyei or by other U.N. bodies during or after the fighting.

Amnesty International also said human rights monitors should be deployed by the United Nations.

Security fears have prevented international humanitarian organizations from returning to Abyei, making it even more difficult for the displaced residents to return because they have lost their homes and crops and desperately need assistance to rebuild their lives.

U.N. peacekeepers in Abyei when the violence and destruction took place last May failed to take meaningful action to prevent the attacks, Amnesty International said.

Former personnel with the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) told Amnesty International that a decision was made not to engage militarily with the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) because the SAF was better equipped.

For example, when the Sudanese Army blew up a bridge linking Abyei to South Sudan, in an apparent attempt to prevent the population's return, UNMIS peacekeepers did not intervene.

A new U.N. peacekeeping force, the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), has been present in Abyei since July with a mandate to protect civilians through December 27.

"It is imperative that the U.N. learns from the failures of UNMIS and ensures that UNISFA is fully deployed and given the necessary human and material resources to enable it to fulfill its mandate to protect the civilians," said Rovera. "The first step is to create the necessary security conditions in Abyei for the safe return of the population."

The status of Abyei remains highly contentious, with both Sudan and South Sudan claiming it as part of their territory and both trying to consolidate their hold on the area.  A referendum to determine the future of Abyei was scheduled for last January, but has been indefinitely delayed due to disagreements on voter eligibility of the two main ethnic groups — the southern ethnic Dinka Ngok, and northern semi-nomadic Misseryia.

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 2.8 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.