'We prayed the rosary as we ran'

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ABYEI, - When Bruna Maloal was a child, Abyei was a peaceful place, and every year her tribe, the Dinka Ngok, welcomed the Misseriya nomads who came to the region with their vast herds of cattle.

"They came with their cows for the water and grass, and we would eat together. They harvested the gum from the trees, and we would buy some of their goods. And when the rains came, they would go home," the 63-year old Catholic catechist told Catholic News Service.

But then things changed. With a separatist movement pushing the South of the country toward eventual independence, Abyei was caught literally in the middle. The nomads who once came to Abyei in peace were transformed into an armed militia by the northern government in Khartoum.

"Omar changed things. Maybe he discovered something here he wanted. But the whole problem began with Omar," said Maloal, referring to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been charged by the International Criminal Court with genocide and crimes against humanity for his government's actions in Sudan's western region of Darfur.

Backed by the Sudanese army, Misseriya militias attacked Abyei in 2008. Maloal hid in the bush for four days, then came back to the smoldering ruins of her house. The nearby church compound had been sacked and everything of value carried away.

Yet the violence in 2008 was but a prelude to 2011, when the Sudanese government tried to provoke the soon-to-become-independent government in Juba, South Sudan, to respond militarily to an attack on Abyei. Such a response would have given the North an excuse to launch a full-scale war that would have derailed the South's independence. Juba didn't take the bait. The people of Abyei, now one of the regions in dispute along the Sudan-South Sudan border - paid a heavy price.

"The Misseriya came on motorcycles, one driving with two on the back with guns, shooting people. I saw them with my own eyes. They chased us away, yelling in Arabic. I left everything behind except the clothes on my back. I didn't even have time to get my shoes," Maloal said.

"We hid in the bush near the edge of town to see if the situation got calm. It didn't. They told us to leave. So we ran. For eight days we ran, with the shooting and bombing behind us. It was raining, and at night we huddled under the trees with nothing to cover ourselves. Some stopped in Agok, but they were bombing there so I kept moving farther south. When we arrived at Turalei, the United Nations people gave us food and blankets," she said.

More than 100,000 residents of Abyei were displaced by the assault. Most of them sought shelter in Agok. Heavy rains caused the tanks and heavy artillery of the northern forces to get bogged down in mud before they could advance on Agok, preventing what could have been an even greater humanitarian crisis.

Maloal spent the next year living under a plastic tarp. When the Misseriya pulled back from Abyei in mid-2012, she was one of the first to return. Maloal set to work cleaning up the church compound, which was once again in ruins, and she picked through the rubble of what had been her own mud-walled hut. She regularly gathered other Catholics to pray.

"We prayed the rosary as we ran from here. We prayed for the bullets to miss. God ran with us, and were it not for the power of God, we couldn't have come back," Maloal said. "The church is always with the people. The people here have survived because the church supports them. As a catechist, I gather them, pray with them, and preach the word of God to them."

Maloal said her five children and their families remain living south of Abyei, where they have access to food from the U.N. World Food Program. In Abyei town, there is little help from the outside. Maloal harvests wild greens that she uses to supplement what's left of two bags of sorghum she received last August from U.N. peacekeepers.

The U.N. troops, who are from Ethiopia, have also provided water to returned residents. The Misseriya sabotaged the town's wells before leaving, so U.N. tank trucks regularly make the rounds to fill roadside barrels with water.

In several outlying villages, the Abyei Catholic parish, with support from Caritas South Sudan and several international partners, has played a lead role in drilling new wells for the returnees, at the same time rehabilitating community clinics.

The church is an exception here, as few international nongovernmental organizations are willing to get involved in the contested territory's rehabilitation. In part, they're not sure the militias will not attack again and wipe out their investment. Yet many also operate in Darfur and other regions of Sudan, and they don't want to anger the Khartoum government, which has kicked several aid groups out of the country. Some NGOs have had their Khartoum offices visited by government officials, who warned that they were watching closely any involvement in Abyei.

Because of the lack of international support for a return, only about 20,000 of those displaced in 2011 have returned to their communities, according to the United Nations, yet those numbers are inexact. Church leaders say many families have returned for a brief period, then gone back to the relative safety of Agok. Before making a decisive commitment to return home, they're waiting to see what the political future holds.

The African Union has proposed a referendum for next October on Abyei's future. A similar referendum planned for 2011 did not take place, as the two governments could not agree on who was eligible to vote. This year's proposal may well precipitate new violence from those who fear they would lose at the polls.

On the ground, while the Ethiopian peacekeepers have all but eliminated open clashes, incidents of livestock theft by the Misseriya are reportedly increasing. Many worry that's a sign of increased violence in the months ahead.

Father Karlo Kaw, one of two priests serving the Abyei parish, said the problem is that the U.N. troops are afraid.

"The Ethiopian troops won't go out at night. But that's when the men with guns arrive to steal the goats and cattle, and in the morning, when the U.N. troops wake up, the animals are long gone," Father Kaw said. "You cannot follow someone with a gun unless you are willing to die yourself. And these Arabs, they will shoot even the U.N. troops. They don't care, they are very crazy."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970