THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Militias mar Sudan homecoming

Convoys bringing southerners back come under fire

Athou Ahmed Mohammed was a bus driver in a convoy taking southern Sudanese home when it was attacked by gunmen. Athou Ahmed Mohammed was a bus driver in a convoy taking southern Sudanese home when it was attacked by gunmen. (Maggie Fick/ Associated Press)
By Maggie Fick
Associated Press / January 30, 2011

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AWEIL, Sudan — It should have been a joyful homecoming: Aker Aguer was returning home to southern Sudan years after she fled a brutal civil war, to vote for her homeland’s independence.

But then, armed raiders fired on the bus she was traveling on with her five children, during one of several attacks on returning southerners reported by the United Nations in the weeks after a vote that drew international praise for being peaceful.

The attacks on convoys north of the contested Abyei region continued throughout the weeklong referendum in early January, marring a process that was otherwise largely peaceful, and continued even after polls had closed, UN reports said.

The violence along Sudan’s contested north-south border shows that militias can still strike with impunity despite a heavy military presence on both sides of the border. Observers fear such attacks could derail key talks between the north and south preceding the south’s declaration of independence, set for July.

In the past three weeks, UN agencies have reported at least eight attacks on convoys of buses driving through central Sudan. The most serious incidents occurred near the contested border hot spot of Abyei, a fertile area claimed by both northern and southern governments.

The UN report also said a convoy was shot at on Jan. 17 as it passed through the oil fields of Diffra, just north of Abyei.

On Jan. 8, Aguer joined the tens of thousands of southern Sudanese returning home, encouraged by the prospect of her homeland becoming Africa’s newest country. She was still north of the border, in a convoy of some 800 people on Jan. 9, when the convoy came under attack, despite a guard of Sudanese soldiers. Gunmen shot in the air to stop the buses then looted luggage and valuables.

“We were just frozen,’’ said 38-year-old Aguer. Aguer was searched and said her clothes were torn by a woman who was with the raiders.

The mother of a 3-month-old baby was stabbed to death when she refused to give up her cellphone, according to an internal UN report and interviews with witnesses. A separate report, based on interviews with more than 80 families, said roughly half of them were robbed. Others reported missing family members after the attack.

“Even though they took everything, I am happy to be home with my children alive,’’ Aguer said, sitting in a makeshift lean-to of thatched straw and wooden poles in the southern town of Aweil. Around her, new arrivals slept in the open; some had scrounged a plastic sheet or a bit of straw for a roof.

Holding the vote was a key part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the civil war, a conflict between the mainly Muslim north and mainly Christian-animist, oil-rich south that lasted more than two decades and drove Aguer and hundreds of thousands like her to seek refuge in the north and in Kenya and Egypt.

A UN spokesman said that the north and south have both agreed to increase security in Abyei and in the region of southern Kordofan.

The future of the region and whether it will be part of north or south Sudan is being negotiated by the two regions.

“These efforts for reducing and preventing violence are vital to help contain the situation,’’ said Kouider Zerrouk, a spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan. “However, continued absence of a final settlement for the future status of Abyei leaves open the possibility of further clashes between the communities in the area.’’

Most of the people attacked said the raiders were Misseriya tribesmen, who fear losing their rights to graze in Abyei if the region goes to the south. Some said the governor of South Kordofan state, Ahmed Haroun, is organizing the tribesmen.

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