From the magazine Guernica, writer Jina Moore interviews Rebecca Hamilton who has had a long history of involvement in Sudan. Hamilton worked for the International Crimes Tribunal while the court convicted country’s president, Omar al-Bashir convicted of war crimes. She currently reports on Sudan for the Washington Post.
Guernica: South Sudan voted in January to secede from the country. The formal division is scheduled for July 9, but there’s been new violence the last few weeks in Abyei.
Rebecca Hamilton: And now in a place called South Kordofan.
Guernica: What has been happening there, and will it jeopardize the split?
Rebecca Hamilton: It’s best to think of these as two things—they’re related, but there’s different dynamics going on with each of them. A key difference is Abyei is contested territory. We still do not know whether Abyei is going to belong to the new country of South Sudan or effectively the new country of Sudan, the northern part. That was supposed to be decided by a referendum in January; that referendum never happened, so it was being dealt with through political negotiations. All of that went out of the window when government seized the territory on May 21.
Guernica: Why is Abyei so sought after?
Rebecca Hamilton: There’s a huge misconception that it’s all about the oil, and the truth is there’s actually not much oil left in Abyei. The misperception arose because when the peace agreement was signed in 2005, Abyei accounted for a quarter of Sudan’s oil production. Since then, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague defined major oil fields to lie outside Abyei. They’re in the north now, not even up for grabs, and they account for one percent of the oil in Sudan. The idea that it’s “oil-rich Abyei” is out of date.
The area is incredibly fertile and really important in terms of water. The permanent residents are the Ngok Dinka, who think Abyei should be southern. They’re more likely to be farmers. The Misseriya are a nomadic group that travels down from the north each year. There’s a river—the Ngok Dinka call it the Kiir, the Misseriya call it Bahr al-Arab—that’s a consistent source of water through the dry season. That river in Abyei is pretty crucial for their livelihoods. They feel if Abyei goes to the south, that they won’t be able to graze their livestock.
There have been promises by the south for grazing rights, but there is still so much mistrust between the two sides. During the civil war, the Sudanese government armed the Misseriya nomads as proxy. Even though both groups had coexisted quite well prior to the conflict, it all become much more difficult as a consequence.
The south really wants Abyei; they have a core constituency who reside in the area who believe that Abyei belongs to the south. There are a number of those sons of Abyei in high positions of government in South Sudan, so it’s pretty hard for South Sudan to just walk away. What’s been amazing over last few weeks is that the southern government hasn’t retaliated over Abyei, not because it hasn’t been debated fiercely, but because it seems like the greater good to hold on until July 9, get independence, be a sovereign state, and then be on more solid ground.
Guernica: That strategy implies the division will go forward no matter what?
Rebecca Hamilton: Absolutely. If South Sudan will become the world’s newest nation on July 9, for me, is not the question. The question is whether the fighting and the insecurity along the border areas is going to be so severe that it makes both the north and the south ultimately impossible to govern.
Guernica: Where does the violence in South Korodfan, which neighbors Abyei, fit into all this?
Rebecca Hamilton: Southern Kordofan is not a disputed territory. It is, and will remain, in the north, where the Nuba Mountains are. People believe there was a genocide there in 1990s. The Nuba, who are northerners, fought with the south in the north-south war. But they have their own individual interests, and they will remain in the north after the south splits. [Sudanese President Omar Hassan] Bashir said he wanted all of these former southern fighters to be disarmed by June, and when that didn’t happen, or when there was an effort at forced disarmament, we got into this situation.
There have been bombs dropping for ten days, humanitarian access has been barred, journalists who tried to get in [to Southern Kordofan] were beaten and turned away at checkpoints. In all the interviews I’ve been doing, the phone calls I’ve gotten at three in the morning, people are saying the Nuba are being systematically hunted down.
Guernica: Ethnic cleansing?
Rebecca Hamilton: Right.