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ABYEI, Sudan – The convoy of 95 buses had been on the road for a week when it ran into problems. Hundreds of southern Sudanese families with all their belongings were trying to return to the South from Khartoum because they were afraid of reprisals after the South’s independence referendum.
Mawien Tong, a 23-year-old medical student in Khartoum, was trying to link up with his family in the South. Tong was on one of the lead buses in the convoy that came under attack by an Arab Misseriya militia last week as it tried to pass through the tense Abyei region along the North-South border.
The attack demonstrates the precarious security situation in Abyei, where Misseriya militiamen and Ngok Dinka are armed and ready to fight for the region rich in pastureland. Despite a cease-fire and disarmament agreement signed last week, the region remains volatile. Roads are still blocked and much needed supplies are not reaching Abyei town from the North. Busloads of returnees have been stuck in limbo for days.
On Wednesday, one bus made it through with 32 people including Tong. He told a story of looting, intimidation, rape, and gunfire.
After traveling south from Khartoum, the convoy made it to Nyama in South Kordofan state, just outside of the Abyei region. The buses continued south to the town of Diffra under escort from the northern Sudanese Armed Forces. Near Diffra, armed Misseriya fighters ambushed the convoy. They fired at the buses and looted the passengers. The SAF soldiers did nothing to stop them.
The convoy turned back to Nyama and the returnees spent days in a makeshift camp with no food or clean water. Women who ventured out of the camp looking for firewood were raped. After a week in Nyama, the convoy tried again to head south. Again they ran into armed fighters in Diffra and the buses were shot at and looted.
They were sent back to Nyama a second time. Tong said that the SAF soldiers taunted the returnees and chanted that they would never reach the South.
“We did not trust the SAF soldiers,” he said. “We thought they were luring us here so the Misseriya could kill us.”
After another three days in Nyama, they tried a third time to travel into the Abyei region. This time, they made it through Diffra and reached the handoff point for a Joint Integrated Unit that includes southern forces.
The JIU-led convoy came under fire from Misseriya fighters about 10 minutes past the checkpoint. They turned back and were told to return to Nyama. Tong and his fellow 31 passengers refused to go back to the squalid camp. Having already made it this far, they were desperate to continue to the South.
After two days at the JIU check point, U.N. peacekeepers finally came and picked them up in armored personnel carriers and drove them into Abyei town. The hundreds of returning families that make up the rest of the convoy are not as lucky. They are stuck in Nyama, their fate unknown.