Wandering around the stalls an hour later, Ms. Deng’s life suddenly took a drastic turn as conflict erupted in the town and she was forced to flee.
Days later, the 20-year-old mother arrived in Turalei, Warrap State, separated from her mother and son.
“I was away from home to buy food stuff from Abyei market when the incident happened,” the distraught mother said with tears in her eyes. “I (left) both my son and mother at home and I (haven’t) heard about them since then. I am not sure whether they are alive or dead.”
Ms. Deng joined tens of thousands of displaced people in Twic County, who had fled Abyei after the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) took control of the town on 21 May.
Lying on the north-south Sudanese border, Abyei was accorded “Special Administrative Status” under the Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The area was scheduled to hold a referendum in January 2010 on whether to join the north or south, but this has so far failed to occur, as neither party can agree on qualified voters, a referendum commission and other elements.
Regional and international mediation has been unable to resolve the quandary, as have any attempts to reach a political settlement. Meanwhile, both sides have reportedly been building up their military strength in the area.
As of 7 June, some 100,000 people had fled from the Abyei area, of which 67,000 had been registered, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Officials from the Government of Southern Sudan Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs have put the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) up to 150,000.
About 68 per cent of registered IDPs have sought safety in the Turalei and Mayan Abun areas of Warrap State, while the rest have gone to Agok further north, according to the UNHCR.
Twic County Commissioner Dominic Deng said the already dire humanitarian situation in the area was worsening and that people were continuing to flock into Turalei. “At this time, thousands of people, including women and children … are sheltering under trees without food and basic necessities.”
Commissioner Deng added that emergency food assistance from international aid agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), was insufficient for the large influx of refugees and that shelter was also lacking.
Warrap State Governor Nyandeng Malek echoed the commissioner’s statement. “At this stage, the humanitarian situation in our state is very … bad after Abyei was invaded .... which displaced the entire population ... into Warrap State.”
Speaking to In Sudan from her Kuajok office, she added, “In places like Turalei, markets are completely closed down. The restaurants are closed … there is nothing there.”
Stating that the conflict had affected both displaced and host communities, she said places like Twic and Goegrial West counties were the most affected, needing urgent humanitarian help.
“Currently, there is no market to supplement whatever gaps exist in terms of food security, as all roads connecting the state with the north are closed down,” Governor Malek said.
Compounding matters, the SAF had closed all roads leading into her state weeks before they occupied Abyei, she said, severely affecting the entire region.
“We in greater Bahr El-Ghazal, especially Northern Bahr El-Ghazal, Western Bahr El-Ghazal and Warrap states -- almost 99 per cent of our goods come from northern Sudan,” the governor said. “So, when the roads were closed it really affected these three states.”
While praising humanitarian work by agencies in the area, she added that shelter was still an urgent problem.
“We as a government ... don’t have the capacity to give shelter to the IDPs,” said Governor Malek. “The shelter we are providing is ... through our community. We have already appealed to the host community (that) whenever they have a space in their houses, at least to welcome and shelter the displaced people when it is raining.”
Like Ayak Deng, many displaced were traumatized by family separation due to the sudden conflict.
Achie Gock was separated during the scramble to flee from two of his three wives and eight of his 15 children.
“I lost my wives and children while we fled Abyei and I (have had no) information about their whereabouts since,” said the 67-year-old man. “The conflict happened ... and we were in total shock.”
Thousands of IDPs around Turalei depended on daily food from humanitarian organizations to survive, said WFP head in Abyei Margareta Coco, speaking from her temporary base in Wunrock. “We are trying to make sure that all people get immediate food assistance from WFP.”
As of 8 June, the agency had provided 1,238 metric tons of food to 83,316 displaced people from Abyei in Warrap, the Abyei area, Western Bahr El-Ghazal, Northern Bahr El-Ghazal and Unity states.
The majority of IDPs in Turalei, however, complained that they had yet to receive food, noting that local people were also receiving assistance and urging UN agencies to distinguish between them and the displaced.
“It is very surprising to see local people from the area receiving food aid in the name of displaced people from Abyei, while we are sitting without food here,” said Abyei IDP Santino Ngor.
Ms. Coco confirmed that challenges existed in separating IDPs from locals, but said her office was coordinating with area officials to resolve the problem.
Despite humanitarian efforts, needs among the displaced population remained high and there were concerns of a further downturn as the rainy season progressed.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has noted that the sudden influx of people has put a heavy strain on existing commodities and basic services, affecting both displaced and host communities alike.
But one of the most pressing challenges was heavy rains, which had made emergency shelter for the displaced an urgent priority. The frequent downpours had also sparked concerns about health conditions, sanitation and the spread of diseases, particularly among vulnerable groups like children and the elderly.
According to OCHA, aid agencies had to deliver assistance and reinforce pre-position supplies before the rainy season rendered roads in upper Warrap impassable, forcing more expensive and volume-limited delivery by air.
In speeding up assistance, OCHA Humanitarian Officer Said Musa said his agency was coordinating all aid activities with the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission and other organizations operating in the area.
“We organize a humanitarian coordination meeting of all humanitarian agencies every evening in Wunrock to discuss challenges and gaps in the humanitarian intervention process and to come up with ways how to better coordinate our efforts,” said Mr. Musa.
Calling for peaceful settlements
The international community, including the Security Council, has called on the Sudanese government to halt its military operations and withdraw immediately from the Abyei area, stating that its presence there was a serious violation of previous agreements.
It has called on all parties to protect civilians in the affected area and take all necessary measures to ensure they were not targeted. Noting that looting was occurring in Abyei town, international actors have also called on the Sudanese government to intervene and stop such criminal acts.
Displaced people like Ayak Deng look forward to seeing all previous and current agreements implemented fully, paving ways to end the chapter of war and displacement in Abyei once and for all, so that they can live a life without fear.