Sudan Episcopal Church offers shelter, advocacy for people of disputed region of Abyei

Displaced residents say they've lost faith in the UN, but trust the church
July 22, 2011

Abraham Adiang Ajak, 29, was in the Abyei market when the attackers -- armed militia members mounted on motorcycles and Sudan Armed Forces units -- came in May. "I heard gunfire first and then saw them coming," he said. "There was no way of running. They were too fast."

As Ajak fled south, he saw young children wandering alone, separated from their parents in the mad rush away from the attack. Neighbors sought refuge in United Nations compounds but were denied access and killed by the attackers.

Now Ajak has found refuge in a classroom of the Episcopal school in Agok, the market town in the southern half of this contested region. He has located his parents, who were also displaced in the attack, and is now passing time, unable to return to college to continue work on his degree. Agok is overwhelmed, he says. "Many people have lost their life, but not by the gun -- by disease, by hunger, by drinking water that is not safe. Every family here is grieving."

Episcopalians in this contested region -- and those taking shelter in their churches and schools -- are still reeling from attacks in May that displaced tens of thousands and heightened the tension along the already volatile border between Sudan and South Sudan. With help from the church and international aid organizations, they are preparing to rebuild their lives, but they lack confidence that the international community has devised a workable solution for permanent peace in the region.

Resource-rich Abyei has long been a point of contention in Sudan. Attracted by the well-watered and abundant grasslands, Arab Misseryia herders have for generations brought their cattle south during the northern dry season. "When it was our grandfathers, relations were OK between us," says Chirillo Chol Mangom, 46, an official in the local education department and a leader of Agok's Episcopal church. But then things changed. "When the politicians in Khartoum realized there was oil in Abyei, they wanted to make war. It is the politicians who caused this war. They are using the Misseryia to take our land."

Abyei has less oil than it once did but its grasslands are still abundant and its soil still fertile, making it a point of continued conflict between north and south. Similar attacks in 2008 also displaced thousands but residents returned after the international community promised increased security. Under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that led to the peaceful secession of South Sudan this month. residents in Abyei were to vote in January whether to join South Sudan or remain part of the north. But the referendum never happened as disputes over who was eligible to vote held up the process. Instead, there were low-level attacks in the early months of the year, culminating in the attacks in May. The Sudan Armed Forces stopped at the major waterway -- called the Kiir River by the Dinkas and Bahl el-Arab by the Misseryia -- that divides the northern half of Abyei from the southern. The only bridge over the river was destroyed and now lies in pieces at the river bottom.

Abyei is part of the Episcopal Church of Sudan's Diocese of Aweil. Bishop Abraham Yel Nhial made a pastoral visit to the region last weekend, learning about how the church in Agok has coped with the sudden influx of refugees. Students were supposed to return to classes in May at the Episcopal school that Ajak and others are staying in. Now, they are meeting outside under trees, though as the wet season sets in, this is less tenable as a solution.

Nhial preached on Jeremiah 29:11-14 to an overflowing congregation in the mud-walled and thatch-roofed Episcopal church on Sunday. He urged his people to "keep your focus on the belief that God has a plan for us. We can trust that God has a plan to end this exile." The destruction of the bridge meant that Nhial -- who was escorted to Agok by four truckloads of South Sudanese soldiers for his safety -- was unable to visit the entire region.

During his visit, Bishop Nhial called special attention to the burden the attacks have placed on his priests, who have either been displaced themselves or are now providing pastoral care to congregants who have lost everything. "They have been traumatized and are frustrated," he said. "When people come to them with all these needs, and they have nothing to give them, it becomes very difficult for them."

The Rev. Samuel Chol Nyok, 42, has been ministering to the refugees. "Sometimes I cannot sleep," he says. "I lie there and ask God how this can happen." The message he has been sharing with the refugees is simple. "In this situation, the role of the church must be to go into the community, to preach, to remind them that God created you and loves you." Still, it is not easy. "All I can do is kneel in front of God and ask how we can suffer like this."

Nhial's visit coincided with the delivery of nearly 50 tons of relief material donated by the Episcopal Church of Sudan's international partners, including Episcopal Relief & Development, the Mennonite Central Committee, and HOPE International Development Agency. Refugees living in the church yard, the school, and elsewhere received tarps, mosquito nets, and bedding, along with flour, beans, and cooking oil.

The aid was welcome but had been long delayed in arriving, due to the difficulty of getting money to Sudan, a country still under financial sanctions, and currency shortages in South Sudan. The convoy of aid trucks was repeatedly stuck in the mud on Abyei's roads, which have deteriorated significantly with the onset of the wet season in the region.

Refugees from Abyei have also fled to three neighboring states in South Sudan. Following his visit, Nhial launched an international appeal calling for logistical and financial help to allow him to visit members of his diocese now living in the states of Western Bahr El Gazal, Northern Bahr el Gazal, and Warrap. "My people need pastoral support and attention," Nhial said. "But I have been unable to visit all of them." The Diocese of Aweil is less than a year old and Nhial does not own a vehicle capable of covering the far-flung and difficult-to-access region.

Under an agreement reached in June, Abyei will be demilitarized and Ethiopian peacekeepers -- who began to deploy during Nhial's visit -- will patrol the region. But few people have hope this will be an effective solution. Kon Kuol, 36, an evangelist for the church, says no one has much faith in the U.N. anymore. "Two attacks -- 2008 and now -- have happened with the U.N. there. Our houses were burned and our property was looted and the U.N. was there. Abyei burned -- again! -- and the U.N. did nothing."

Nhial has written to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson asking for assistance in arranging a meeting between church leaders and Ethiopian commanders. Nhial says priests can provide Ethiopians with on-the-ground information gathered in the last few months and receive assurances as to the credibility of the mission so the church can encourage its members to begin to return home. "The people of Abyei must be able to return to their homes to take advantage of the second planting season in September and reduce their dependence on food aid," said Nhial. "But they will not return under current conditions."

The refugees living in the diocesan school welcome the advocacy of the church. "In this situation, the role of the church is to speak out to the international community to give an accurate report of what is happening here," says Barnabas Machar, 48, who fled south with his family during the attacks. "The church will be the one informing the international community to come witness what is happening for themselves, and not just hear about it through other means of communication. We trust the church. It is the church that will say what they have seen with their own eyes."

Most importantly, says Ajak, the young man displaced by the attacks, "the church will not see Abyei as a land of resources but as a land of people, people who have lives, who have rights to live peacefully like others and not be threatened like animals."

Ultimately, it seems likely that the refugees in Agok will return to their homes in northern Abyei when the Ethiopian peacekeepers have deployed. Achol Chol, an elderly woman who no longer remembers how old she is, says she does not trust the U.N. But there are few other options. "Peace, we don't know how to get it. But we don't have any other land. This is where our ancestors and families have lived. We have no other place to go."

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