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Monitoring Peace in the Border Badlands of Sudan

Published on Saturday 27th March 2010

Thick dust clouds obscure the horizon as the convoy of UN military observers sets off to patrol the oil-rich, yet desperately underdeveloped Unity State in Southern Sudan.

In these borderlands, monitoring a 2005 deal that halted decades of war between north and south is a major undertaking.

"We set up a forward operating base, from where we travel to collect first-hand information on the situation," said Andrew Wilson, one of four military observers on a patrol of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).

This four-day "long-range patrol" is designed to gather information as well as boost confidence by showing a greater UN presence in more remote areas.

"There are reports of cattle raiding and clashes between the Dinka and Nuer groups, as well as between the Southern army and the Misseriya [cattle raiders], who come down from the north," added Wilson, a lieutenant in the New Zealand navy.

Teams of unarmed international military observers regularly set out on patrol to assess repeated reports of cattle raiding and ethnic clashes in this highly militarized region, the south's main oil-producing state.

Tensions are high: more than 400 people have been killed this year in clashes across the south, and over 40,000 people displaced, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Southern Sudan.

A key part of the UNMIS mandate is to "monitor and verify" the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), to investigate violations, as well as to observe and log the "movement of armed groups" and redeployment of forces.

But monitoring movements in this remote region is tough.

"This is an enormous area, and mobility is a key issue - it includes one of the largest freshwater swamps in the world," said Sandeep Jain, an Indian army colonel and force commander for UNMIS Sector 3, stretching over three states and some 200,000 sqkm.

"The ownership of weapons by civilians is high - this is a population that has borne the brunt of conflict for many years," Jain added.

On the ground

Observers drive out to areas of concern, interviewing civilian and security officials, as well as people in the markets, about the problems they face and their concerns.

"Understanding what the people are worried about, and what the issues are in the market place, is an important part of assessing the situation too," said Wilson.

Before dark, the team returns to the temporary base - a basic camp with mosquito nets strung from trees, offering shade but little respite from the exhausting 48C degree heat.

The first campsite recommended by local officials was abandoned after a nearby building was found to contain rusting but unexploded mortar rounds left over from the war.

Armed soldiers from the Indian army provide protection, setting up sentries and circling the camp with razor wire - to ward off wild animals and curious children as well as to stop an attack.

But the risks are real. Just one hour after a routine visit to the town of Abiemnom - some 20km from the border - the radio crackles with reports of a fresh attack outside town.

Two Southern Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers were killed in an attack by the Misseriya, and two others lie with bullet wounds in the basic clinic.

It is the latest in a string of clashes blamed on the armed northern pastoralist people, who traditionally move south in search of water and grazing for their cattle.

Local officials accuse the Misseriya of breaking agreements to carry only limited weapons, and of deliberately starting an attack.

"The Misseriya are coming without their cattle but with heavy weaponry - these are not the traditional cattle people of the past," said Peter Arop, head of security in Abiemnom.

Many have bitter memories of the Misseriya, accused by the south of being a proxy militia force for the north during the war.

Others say the attacks are exaggerated. "These are just raids over water and grazing, nothing more," said Lieutenant-Colonel Bakhit Gabir from the Northern Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), who joins the patrol alongside an SPLA counterpart.

Critics warn that both sides are keen to boost troop numbers in the region.

While elections in April are raising tensions, a key concern here is the 2,100km border -of which a third is disputed, cutting through oil fields claimed by both sides.

Another day, another challenge

The convoy turns north towards Kaikeng, heading through thick scrubland and across flat plains, where whirlwinds spin columns of dirt high into the sky.

The team approaches an SPLA camp, which according to the map, is one of the last marked settlements before the major Heglig oil field and the contested border region.

Unlike much of the severely underdeveloped south, the dirt roads in this section are well maintained for oil industry access, with pipeline relay pumping stations heavily guarded at regular intervals.

But the observers are blocked: without permission from regional headquarters, the convoy is told to turn back.

"We cannot enter without obtaining the necessary permission," said the SPLA officer with the patrol, Lieutenant Colonel John Madit.

The UNMIS observers retreat down the road, but in this key area all information is important.

Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed an agreement to begin demarcation of agreed border areas as a "positive step" but warned more had to be done to solve contested areas.

"Resolving the border disputes in the contested areas around Abyei will be a core task for the parties in the year to come," warned Ban in a 9 March statement. Others offer starker warnings.

"If key border areas remain undemarcated, they will be obvious wellsprings for renewed violence," said Maggie Fick in a 16 March report for Enough, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"There will be a busy time ahead," said Wilson wearily, on the slow drive back to base.

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