Father Emmanuel Malau stands with internally displaced children inside his Church in the village of Mayun Abun in Southern Sudan. The children had fled the heavy fighting in the oil contested area of Abyei which was overrun this week by President Omar al-Bashir’s northern troops and tanks.
Three years ago, hundreds of families arrived in Mayen Abom after northern troops attacked Abyei. When the Rev. Emmanuel Malau heard that northern troops had again invaded Abyei last weekend, he knew villagers were heading his way.
“Sunday was like a funeral mass,” he said, as the villagers talked over the looting and burning of their kinsmen’s homes to the north. “People arrived very hungry and thirsty. Some collapsed totally.”
After Mass, Malau drove slowly along the main road, calling for the fearful to come out. More than 300 children did, and his small church is now a shelter bursting full of people, many of them women and children, who have abandoned their homes and fear for their futures. Over 80,000 people have now fled the disputed oil rich region.
On Thursday, John Prendergast, co-founder of the advocacy group the Enough Project, said the international community must intervene to halt the north’s actions. Prendergast said: “The ultimate strategy is to ethnically cleanse Abyei, similar to what the regime has done in parts of Darfur.” The capture of the city has been widely condemned by the international community as a threat to peace between north and south.
A referendum on the future of southern Sudan was held in January under a 2005 peace agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war between the north and the south. The south voted overwhelmingly to secede from Sudan, Africa’s largest country.
Both the north and south claim Abyei, a fertile region located near several oil fields. Abyei is sometimes referred to as the country’s Jerusalem because of its symbolic status and the deeply emotional debate over its control.
Sudan is the third-largest oil producer in Africa, and geologists hope that unexplored territory cut off by the war might hold more deposits. Author and Sudan expert Douglas Johnson said that if the north tries to occupy other border areas near oil fields that it would inflame violence, giving the south justification to make alliances with rebel groups in the western Sudan region of Darfur.
As darkness creeps over Mayan Abom, families cram inside the Church. Malau says that services are being held outside for now, under the shade of a giant mahogany tree.
Most of the people, he says, pray to go home.