Abyei, Sudan: "They only have the clothes they were wearing when the fighting started"

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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The fighting that erupted in Abyei on May 14 has forced nearly 50,000 people to flee. They are now scattered around the area with little access to food, shelter, or water.

Starting May 14, fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) devastated the town of Abyei, which has been virtually destroyed. Almost the entire local population has fled to the north and south of the town to seek refuge. Abyei, located in the center of Sudan, and its surroundings, had a population of approximately 130,000 people prior to the fighting. Almost 50,000 people have now been displaced. On the day of the attack, the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) nutritional center in Abyei was treating 700 children suffering from malnutrition, including 80 who were admitted prior to the attack suffering from severe malnutrition. Andreas Papp, MSF field coordinator in Turalei and Agok describes the situation.

What is the humanitarian situation more than two weeks after the fighting started in Abyei?

After the eruption of the fighting on May 14 nearly the entire population was displaced to the north and south. It is estimated that nearly 50,000 people have been forced to flee Abyei area. Almost all of them left with no personal belongings, they only have the clothes they were wearing when the fighting started. They are scattered over a wide area because they fear new attacks. It also means that the majority of the displaced have no shelter and access to food or clean water. MSF is also very worried about malnutrition as our hospital in Abyei admitted 80 children in the last week before the evacuation and our teams were planning to extend their activities to cover all the needs, which were huge. In our outpatient department the global malnutrition rate had risen over 50 percent before the fighting started! The situation of the so-called “returnees” is particularly despairing.

Who are those returnees?

They are people from southern Sudan who have fled during the conflict into the northern part of the country to seek a better life, far away from the fighting. They started to come back to southern Sudan and have found nothing there. The happiness of going back “home” was huge but they have nothing, not even shelter when they arrived. Our teams in Abyei were shocked by the living conditions of those people even before they were forced to flee the fighting. They had no food, no water, nothing. Some were waiting at the bus station for one week for a bus to transfer them to their areas. Imagine what might be their living conditions now.

How does MSF respond to this emergency?

After clashes on May 20, a surgical team received and treated around 140 war wounded in two different sites. In the village of Agok, where there’s an estimated population more 20,000 displaced persons, MSF has delivered relief supplies like plastic sheeting, blankets, jerry cans, and mosquito nets to approximately 10,000 of them. Our teams are running a health center with basic outpatient department and nutrition services and carried out more than 700 medical consultations in this place. Twenty-three percent of the children screened using mid-upper-arm circumference measurement needed immediate treatment for malnutrition.

What are the most urgent needs?

The population that has fled has lost almost everything. Distributing relief supplies is crucial. MSF and other humanitarian agencies already organized some distribution, but this is not enough. All agencies have to continue this effort. Access to food and health care are essential for these vulnerable populations. We really fear that malnutrition rates will be increase and we are really concerned for the population we cannot reach and who have not received anything so far.

What are the main concerns in delivering humanitarian aid?

Due to heavy rainfall of last week and danger in some areas, it has been very difficult to access to the people in need. Some muddy roads have become already impassable as well as smaller airstrips unusable. As the rainy season continues many villages will be isolated in the coming weeks. On the top of that, as the peace talks have shown no progress yet new military operations would cause new displacements.

Nevertheless we have sent 34 tons of material (medical equipment, therapeutic food, water and sanitation equipment, and relief supplies) and more than 20 MSF staff are working in Turalei and Agok and assessing the area at the moment.

What is MSF planning to do?

Everything will depend on the weather and the military operations but we’ll try to gain access to areas not yet assessed in order to deliver basic medical care, provide water and sanitation, and distribute relief supplies. We plan to carry out a measles-vaccination campaign for both the displaced and resident populations In the event that the fighting restarts, MSF teams will provide surgical services for war wounded where it will be possible to do it.

Is MSF also working with the Mysseria population who fled towards the northern areas?

A team is trying to access the area but so far we have not received the authorization from the government of Sudan. The population in these northern areas is also victims of the recent fighting and could be in a very difficult situation. It is important to assess the situation.