Humanitarianism as buffer: Displacement, aid and the politics of belonging in Abyei, Sudan/South Sudan

Humanitarianism as buffer: Displacement, aid and the politics of belonging in Abyei, Sudan/South... Abstract This article explores how the humanitarian presence and programs in the disputed border area of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan can be understood as a buffer between conflicting parties, rather than as mere assistance to a displaced population. It aims to contribute to debates about the spatial impact of humanitarian governance and the politicization of aid in protracted crisis contexts, and specifically in relation to territorial disputes and border struggles. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork in South Sudan between 2011 and 2013. The article argues that the humanitarian response became part of the politics of belonging that lies at the heart of the dispute. The very acts of labelling, categorizing, and maintaining the subjects of aid are highly political, such as the creation of the category of the ‘people of Abyei’ in contrast to refugees or Internally Displaced People. As a result, the interventions have sustained governance over the territory and can be understood as a humanitarian buffer that may shape the border area of Abyei for many years to come. Humanitarian aid is part of, and effects, social, political and economic relations, yet its spatial and material effects are not always conceived of as productive practice with implications beyond the immediate aim of assisting people. Normative and practical approaches to humanitarian practice view aid as responding to immediate and objective needs and risk neglecting the ‘auxiliary space’ that it produces as unintended yet tangible effects of intervention, or externalizing this as unintended consequences or exceptional irregularities.1 This article examines the spatial practices of humanitarian agencies in a disputed border area between Sudan and South Sudan. Although any confirmation or legitimization of the border between the two states is not the purpose or aim of humanitarian aid, the effort to assist a displaced population, and ultimately the return of people to their respective home areas, is part of a politics of belonging that may affect this confirmation or legitimization in unforeseen ways. I argue that in the process of seeking ways to navigate the complex political environment of Abyei, aid programs and actors maintained and consolidated a humanitarian buffer which mitigates the exclusionary politics of the parties vying for control over Abyei and its people. This buffer contributes to the negation and suspension of a hard border and sustains an ambiguous and undetermined borderland, co-shaped and co-governed by a humanitarian rationale and praxis. Although this article focuses on a particular case, the process involved may be emblematic of more general effects of long-term humanitarian engagement with and in protracted conflict areas, where aid and relief materializes as a much more tangible and intimate form of governance and control. South Sudan became an independent country by separating from Sudan on 9 July 2011. Although a formal independence was declared, the precise border demarcation had yet to be decided upon. One of those disputed border areas concerns the region of Abyei. In the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement it was laid down that the population of Abyei would be given the chance to decide in which Sudan they wish to belong in a referendum to be held in January 2011, and until that time the region would be jointly administered by the Sudanese and autonomous South Sudanese government and their respective armed forces. In May 2011 however, just a few months prior to independence, and in a repetition of similar events in 2008, the joint administration arrangement broke down when clashes broke out between the two forces, and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) ‘invaded’ and occupied Abyei. Most of the population of Abyei fled south, as well as the UN and humanitarian NGOs. An international settlement resulted in a transitional period in which the region was demilitarized and monitored by the United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA) in anticipation of a permanent settlement between the two countries. The thrust of this article was born during an interview with a European UN staff member who suggested that the response of UNISFA and humanitarian agencies—protecting, maintaining and servicing the disputed border territory—represented a ‘new Cyprus in the making’, referring to the long lasting UN buffer zone known as the Green Line between the opposing sides in Cyprus.2 In Abyei, he implied, UN forces would separate the two countries at this particular flashpoint for years, possibly decades to come, with humanitarian agencies assisting the displaced for the unforeseeable future. This raises questions about the ways in which humanitarian aid relates to the politics of war, but also the ways in which humanitarians position themselves and their organizations with regard to their own role in the Abyei spectacle, and the consequences of this position. The article shows how aid actors created a particular category of displaced people—‘the people of Abyei’—as a way to engage with the local political landscape, which allowed them to provide aid without ostensibly taking a political position in the dispute. By doing so, aid actors sustained a particular sense of belonging for its beneficiaries/targets, and the humanitarian vocabulary and ideology ultimately contributed to an alternative organization of space. The actions of the armed forces and their allied militias were understood to deliberately displace parts of the population and depopulate territory as a form of demographic warfare. Yet, the responses and intervention of the aid agencies were categorized as humanitarian responses to a more generalized notion of ‘forced displacement’, which suggests that their target population could also be circumstantial victims of more generalized violence rather than political subjects in broader processes of border struggle. Indeed, the idea that humanitarians consolidate or assist in the deliberate attempts of warring parties to engage in the uprooting of specific ethnic groups is irreconcilable with humanitarian non-partisanship. The generalized discourses of emergency aid, relief, and humanitarianism depoliticize and obscure the association with intentional demographic warfare. However, it is very complicated to dissociate aid and the dispute in this particular case, and this may be true for complex conflict arenas in general. In Abyei, aid, displacement and demographic warfare were closely related and shaped a very specific context of intervention in which aid actors sought to manoeuvre. The article looks at how this manoeuvring came about and to what effects, and how aid relates to the disputed border area of Abyei. After a short methodological note, the article discusses the idea of a humanitarian buffer, and then zooms in on Abyei as a disputed area. It analyses how aid categorization and practice relate to demographic warfare, in order to show how a buffer is maintained by humanitarian means over Abyei. It contributes to debates about the spatial and political impacts of humanitarian governance in protracted aid contexts, and more specifically in relation to entrenched territorial disputes and border struggles. The understanding of the manifestation of humanitarianism in these specific contexts contributes to a more grounded knowledge of the spatial and socio-political effects of humanitarian governance in relation to bordering processes. Crucially, it argues that through aid, humanitarian actors impact and govern the politics of belonging. Methodology This article results from an ethnographic study into the ways aid actors perceived, anticipated and manoeuvred insecurity in South Sudan after secession from Sudan. Data gathering consisted of visiting aid agencies in their field locations, formal and informal interviews with aid staff and local authorities, and ‘hanging out’ with aid staff and local people in the everyday environment in which humanitarian responses materialize. In this capacity I spent eight months in various locations in South Sudan between early 2011 and late 2013, including the Abyei area. As a consequence of the sensitivity of the topic of study, all references to staff members of the UN and NGOs are anonymized, which was a condition for most aid actors to participate in the study. In addition to just being a methodological complexity, this condition highlights the sensitivity of maintaining humanitarian access in South Sudan. The insistence on anonymity can be understood as a necessary condition for working in a complex political environment in which humanitarian actors, willingly and unwillingly, are an essential part of the socio-political and security landscape. From the ways humanitarian actors narrated their dealing with demanding governments, other NGOs and the UN, it becomes clear that to navigate these complex politics in order to maintain a humanitarian image yet get things done on the ground, is a sensitive and sometimes secretive and counter-intuitive affair. In order to gain an understanding of this environment and the experiences and positioning of aid actors, this study applied ethnography to study humanitarian agencies, aid culture, rationales, programs and their effects. It is inspired by a recent emerging literature on the anthropology of aid, or ‘aidnography’,3 that allows for an actor oriented approach to studying crisis response, in which the everyday practices of aid are understood as the outcome of social negotiation and processes of sense making in ‘complex intervention arenas’.4 Often, it seemed, aid actors were not fully aware of their political roles, and the politics inherent to interventions aimed at delivering services to people. For instance, the dilemmas of dealing with local authorities were at times difficult to align with aid actors’ convictions about the necessity of their presence, the legitimacy of their principled approaches, and the prerogative of their access to the field, even in the face of security risks and the potential impact on their room for manoeuvre. Over the course of the fieldwork I met a diversity of UN and NGO actors, authorities, and local people, in formal and informal settings, and in head offices but also in compounds and other places ‘in the field’. The ethnographic approach allowed me to explore practices, perceptions, and perspectives in the humanitarian arena, taking contradictions, positionality and personality into account. Humanitarian border or buffer? Aid impacts on local environments in other ways than only by programmatic or project outcomes directed to assist people or governments.5 Aid materializes in unforeseen ways in its manifestation as organizations, buildings, compounds and other infrastructure, and projects cycles, bureaucratic and social categorizations, but also lifestyles and routines that affect the social and political environment in which aid comes about. Consequently, humanitarians do not only respond as external agents to crises, but also contribute to the shaping of local dynamics in which current and future crises emerge and exist.6 In the past years, an increasing theoretical focus on humanitarianism as a form of governance has emerged, based on practical experiences and the consequences of disaster and crisis intervention, emergency aid, post-conflict reconstruction, and other labels that are bestowed on a broad range of activities associated with humanitarian action.7 A perspective on ‘aid as governance’ moves beyond a normative and practical understanding of humanitarianism, which has remained occupied with questions around—and hereby reinforces—aid as a temporary, principled, non-political action, or as a moral imperative. Instead, several authors convincingly argue that this depoliticization of aid is an episteme inherent to aid culture,8 and by using this operational approach, and focusing on the response to humanitarian needs, other effects of aid presence and programming remain obscure. The notion of humanitarian governance, instead, embraces how aid and assistance in protracted crises engages in the governance of people and places in a complex power relation with local authorities, and in some cases works to effectively administer territory. A focus on humanitarian governance highlights two concerns. First, humanitarian aid, instead of a mere assistance, moral attribute or necessity in crisis response, is increasingly understood as a form of global governance.9 International aid actors then are part of the governance of crisis-effected landscapes, together with formal authorities, rebel groups, private parties, and others that take part in processes of hybrid governance. Humanitarianism as governance highlights how aid is embedded and shapes local power configurations and political economies as aid landscapes, which may affect many aspects of everyday life, politics and governance. The second concern has to do with temporality and exception. Whereas a practical and normative approach to emergency assistance and humanitarian aid would concentrate on crisis as a temporary state of affairs and aid interventions as a temporary assistance on an aspirational road (back) to development, it is increasingly problematic to discern crisis from non-crisis, and peace from war.10 Instead, many aid contexts show protracted crisis-like circumstances, in which crisis is an imminent, recurring or periodic possibility, and in that sense has become routine. Many contemporary humanitarian contexts have been so for a considerable time. Contexts with violent episodes, and where more-or-less fragile yet stable settlements and ambiguous ‘no-peace no-war’ situations rotate are the playing field of protracted and/or consecutive aid operations that may last for years or decades, with considerable routine and blurring of mandates. These may be presented as crisis contexts nonetheless and they open up, sustain and legitimize claims for intervention to act on behalf of people in need, in powerful regimes of legal and moral regulations and lobbying. Combined, the notion of aid as governance and its manifestation as response to protracted or semi-permanent crises results in a de facto humanitarian governance of territories for durations that surpass immediacy, and in which the language of aid or assistance deflects from the power and socio-economic effects beyond the direct programmatic aim of such interventions. One perspective that stresses such effects is the literature on the ‘humanitarian border,’ understood as the coming together and merging of the militarized boundaries of the Global North and the humanitarian responses that deal with the human collateral that amasses around these borders.11 The concept suggests that increasingly humanitarian rationales and practices overlap with other strategies of governmentality such as militarization, surveillance and securitization,12 and herewith maintains a ‘space of governance where human life is regulated in the name of preserving biological life and alleviating suffering’.13 Although the humanitarian border is perceived to have emerged around the boundaries of the global north, it can also be recognized as having materialized on a global scale in a variety of shapes, for instance as protracted refugee camps, but also as less demarcated areas in which protracted aid operations take the shape of humanitarian protectorates or forms of engagement that evoke notions of ‘empire’.14 In that sense, sites that produce rebellion, instability, or forced migrants, that in one way or another form a potential risk or moral concern for that global north, are regarded as frontier lands that need to be contained, controlled and surveilled.15 However, although the concept of a humanitarian border in Abyei captures some aspects of the processes at work, I suggest it is rather the obscuring and even negation of bordering processes that is more relevant here. Instead of a border, the concept of a buffer is more appropriate. Borders and boundaries signify a separation. They are maintained with the intention to discriminate and determine who or what belongs to the inside and what remains outside of the border. A buffer instead is not so much about a separation, but rather the mitigation of that, and signifies a cushion preventing the impact of the meeting of two sides.16 Abyei in this sense can be understood as an intermediate territory that prevents conflict between two larger parties, in which the population is temporarily settled and aided until it can move (back) to its definitive place, but in the meanwhile constitutes an alternative borderland. Rather than a political or geographical boundary as a fixed line in space, the notion of a borderland implies a situation in which uncertainty, mobility and threat is part of everyday experience.17 Aid, humanitarianism and international intervention co-shape this borderland, among other actors, authorities and powerholders.18 As such, we can question to what extent humanitarian action maintains a buffer that in effect negates a ‘hard’ border demarcation, expressed in Abyei by processes of violent expulsion and uprooting of a particular people as deliberate depopulation. As the role of aid actors consolidates, the humanitarian buffer normalizes and becomes a more permanent feature of the borderland, with a particular role for humanitarian organizations in the organization of space, services and people. Humanitarian governance, as an amalgam of socio-economic programming and public service delivery, contributes to the shaping and maintaining of the borderland between Sudan and South Sudan in Abyei. Gradually it sheds the notion of an external and incidental aid response for a much more tangible and socio-political impact on the local environment, which moves along with episodes of escalation in armed conflict and relative stability. In the context of the disputed borderland, any attempt or suggestion by humanitarians that people are entitled to settle or return to a specific territory, and its spatial and material manifestation in the form of programs such as repatriation exercises, reconstruction of infrastructure such as schools and hospitals and so on, can be understood as related to a politics of belonging. Following Giorgio Agamben’s understanding of sovereign power, border demarcation is about the power to exclude, and thus about who belongs and who does not.19 By viewing humanitarian programming as related to a politics of belonging, it follows that practical programs to assist people to survive in exile, or to return to their original homelands, and associated forms of service delivery to a humanitarian target population, become part of power politics over the question who belongs and who does not, and who determines this. But rather than exerting direct power, aid actors’ impact is more implicit. Cars, compounds, humanitarian discourse, regulations, and repatriation practices implicitly play into this question of inclusion, and as such affect the constitution of the borderland as a space where sovereign power takes shape by the decisions to exclude and include. It is in this sense that I argue that a humanitarian buffer has taken shape in the disputed territory of Abyei on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. While the main discourse on international assistance in Abyei is that humanitarian aid supported displaced populations in order to be able to return ‘home’, leaving the parties in dispute to settle their disagreements, the combined aid effort functioned as a buffer against the excesses of demographic warfare. By doing so, it became integral to that demographic warfare, but as a buffer between two claimants, a position in which humanitarians had to camouflage, suspend and maintain their own conceptualization of specific categories and geographies of belonging. As a result, paradoxes came into being. As shown in what follows, questions over belonging were essential in the Abyei dispute, and population movement—what interventions in forced migration and refugee protection are all about—is ultimately about belonging. Thus, programmatic and discursive notions of displacement, return and repatriation were imbued with ideological and political meaning, which is at odds with how humanitarian actors tend to position themselves in conflict arenas. Facing Abyei Abyei is an exemplar of the conflict at large, containing all the popular imaginations of the 1983–2005 war (and the earlier period of armed conflict between 1955 and 1972) in one socio-spatial context. It captures the binary fallacies of the Sudanese war as a conflict between the north and the south; Muslims versus Christians; Arab versus African; suppressor versus suppressed. Abyei in this popular imagination marks the ambiguous position of the (old) Sudan as bridging the Arab and the African world and, by being part of North as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, romantically, but not accurately, marked in the landscape by a river that runs through it, and that in Arab is known as the Bahr al Arab, and in Dinka as river Kiir. It makes it a border area not only in political, but also in geographical, social and symbolic understanding, as was reiterated in the ways people from Abyei but also elsewhere in South Sudan spoke about the region. The Abyei area is in the southern part of South Kordofan province. In the Abyei protocol, the area is defined as the ‘area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905’, and indicates that the Dinka Ngok, as a sub-tribe of the South Sudanese Dinka, and as such more associated with the south than with the north, ended up under a northern administration.20 Prior to 1905, the lands of the Dinka Ngok were part of the province of Bahr al Ghazal under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the colonial administration of Sudan. Insecurity due to conflicts between the Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya sub-tribe of the Baqqara, nomadic pastoralists who cross into Abyei as part of a seasonal migration from the north, was the reason to bring the two parties under one governing body as to better manage the struggles and disputes between the two populations. In this way, a people that culturally associated with the south became part of the north as ‘Southerners’ living in the ‘northern’ province of Kordofan.21 When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, the future status of Abyei was scheduled to be determined by a referendum to be held simultaneously with the referendum deciding on unity or separation for the whole of South Sudan. In this separate referendum, the population of Abyei would get to vote on staying with Sudan, or joining the newly independent South Sudan. This was not unprecedented, and adds to the special status of Abyei. The Addis Ababa peace accords of 1972 included a similar clause with a referendum to decide whether Abyei would belong to the autonomous southern region or remain with Kordofan as part of Sudan.22 While the south was granted autonomy as a result of these Addis Ababa accords, somehow the ‘Abyei problem’ was left unresolved and the referendum was postponed. The Abyei referendum that was scheduled for 2011 was never held. This was partly due to a dispute about the precise territorial demarcation of Abyei,23 and as a consequence of this, about who exactly belongs to Abyei and would get to vote in the referendum.24 As the different parties in Sudan could not agree on these terms, the SPLM/A decided to agree with postponing the Abyei referendum, and to give priority to the South Sudan referendum first. In this way, they could go ahead with their separation, leaving the Abyei issue for later resolution, in the meanwhile installing a separate oversight committee to deal with governing the ambiguously demarcated area. Abyei was so contentious that the CPA would arguably not have been possible without leaving the Abyei issue unresolved. Solving the Abyei problem would raise so many complexities that the basis for agreement on other topics, and the overall peace, would be compromised.25 A detailed narration, chronology and analysis of the intricacies of the political agreements and resolutions concerning Abyei is beyond the scope of this article, and others have done so in detail.26 Sufficient for my argument here is to lay down how Abyei was and is the scene of unresolved dispute with specific historical and ethnic roots, in which both states disagree on the exact demarcation of the area, on who has rights of residency, and who is to govern it. In May 2011, just a few months before secession and repeating events in 2008,27 Abyei was occupied by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). In practice this meant that violent clashes between the SAF and SPLA ended a shared administration under the CPA. An estimated 100,000 people,28 most of the Dinka Ngok population of Abyei, fled south, as well as the UN and humanitarian NGOs that operated from and were based in the region. Thus, when South Sudan seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, the precise boundaries between the two states remained disputed, as was also the case in the Nuba mountains and Blue Nile. An international settlement resulted in a transitional period in which the region was demilitarized and monitored by the Ethiopian-led United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA) in anticipation of a permanent settlement between the two countries. The UN and humanitarian actors referred to the Abyei area as ‘The Box’ as it was indicated as a separate boxed territory on UN maps. The Box could also describe a place that defies logical and practical resolution. Hilde Johnson, the former head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, writes about Abyei as an anomaly, and suggests that the background of the conflict is unique.29 As Francis Deng wrote earlier: ‘unless the issue of Abyei is resolved, it will always be a source of conflict between the north and the south.’30 Abyei was generally regarded as a flashpoint that could reignite the war.31 Others referred to it as Sudan’s ‘Kashmir,’32 indicating a long standing dispute to which two countries lay intractable claims as a result of separation. One aid worker I interviewed referred to Abyei as a new Cyprus in the making,33 with UN forces separating the two countries at this particular flashpoint for possibly decades to come, and humanitarian agencies assisting the affected people for the unforeseeable future as a result of this ‘intractable referendum dispute’.34 The comparison to Cyprus is interesting because it refers to a long lasting UN mission acting as a buffer between two conflicting sides that both lay claim on territory and belonging. Since 1964, the United Nations Force in Cyprus maintains the United Nations Buffer Zone, or Green or Atilla Line, which separates the Cyprus National Guard and Turkish army. The aid worker referred to Cyprus as an example of a conflict that seems to be without resolution and as a result necessitated a long-term military UN intervention. Others have referred to seemingly intractable conflicts such as these as ‘frozen conflicts’,35 which implies situations where ceasefires may exist, but where conflict is unresolved. In addition to Cyprus, stalled conflicts such as in Kashmir and Nagorno-Karabach produce similar debates about a supposed ‘ethnic incompatibility, ancient hatreds, and historical injustices’ as the main drivers and perpetuation of these irresolvable conflicts.36 In the case of Abyei, there is not so much a freezing of conflict, rather it is the dynamic presence and programs of international actors such as the UN and NGOs, protected (in theory) by armed peacekeepers, that keeps demographic warfare at bay. In Abyei, rather than a military border demarcation, it is the normalization of humanitarian services, presence and targeting that gives shape to the borderland, along with a UN force. As such, the suggestion of a status quo is false in that it is not frozen at all, but rather there is a humanitarian buffer which is actively maintained, that allows political and state actors to postpone and suspend further resolution—meanwhile maintaining their respective demographic claims. The reference to a ‘new Cyprus in the making’ is telling because in Abyei there is no immediate resolution other than the buffer.37 Humanitarian agencies, and especially those that are engaged with problems of displacement, are essentially engaged in a politics of belonging. Humanitarian discourse is exemplary in this regard: displacement, repatriation, reconstruction are all labels that are bestowed on people and situations that in one way or another demarcate a condition, a ‘normality’, that was disrupted by crisis and disaster. It is important to interrogate the intended and unintended ways humanitarian responses to forced migration such as refugee repatriation, but also rehabilitation efforts of physical infrastructure, relate to a (re)construction or affirmation of belonging, and understand these in relation to the dynamics of demographic warfare in Abyei. Demographic warfare and ‘the people of Abyei’ In the history of the armed conflict in Sudan, forced population movements, humanitarian aid, and the economy of war have been closely related.38 Strategies to unsettle and displace populations as part of armed conflict have included asset stripping, slavery, instigating famine by closing routes to markets, sieges and scorched earth tactics. As part of the war effort, economic and demographic rationales come together in attempts to control and influence population movements.39 Examples include the ethnic cleansing of areas in Kordofan, Upper-Nile and Unity by the government that cleared large areas of land for the oil industry in the 1990s,40 and the deliberate displacement of people from Abyei for the purpose of resource extraction and to settle Baqqara herdsmen on Dinka lands.41 Similarly in Abyei after the 2011 occupation it was noted that ‘when the SAF did finally leave they stripped everything, even school roofs’,42 as if they wanted to leave no material proof or reason for belonging, or claim thereof, behind.43 The initial struggle over who controls Abyei increasingly became about who belongs to the area, and the dispute shifted ‘from the limits and the boundaries of the Abyei area to whether the Misseriya were entitled to participate in the referendum’.44 The crux in the conflict thus became about who could be regarded as the legitimate residents of Abyei.45 SPLA maintained that other than Dinka Ngok, the Misseriya only held grazing rights, and as such would not be eligible to vote. This problem not only held back the referendum in 2011, but it also highlighted a northern agenda in that if Sudan wished to stand a chance in a referendum, it needed Misseriya to participate, and hence needed to prove, show, or claim a credible sense of belonging or residency for the Misseriya population. One way of doing this was by altering the balance between Dinka Ngok and Misseriya residents that are understood as belonging to, or settled in, Abyei. The reluctance among southern parties to give in to the demand to include the Misseriya in the referendum was the result of a fear that an unknown electorate would surface to vote against joining with South Sudan. In anticipation of this, the Abyei Administration claimed that the Sudanese government had been settling Misseriya in the northern part of Abyei for precisely this purpose,46 and UN and Embassy staff I interviewed indicated the same.47 In a similar vein, a doctor who worked in Abyei during the 2008 escalation writes: ‘Everything around Abyei was a vacuum built by 20 years of guns. One that both sides, South and North, were trying to get people from all over Sudan to fill in preparation for a referendum that was to determine Abyei’s fate, and with it, the destiny of Sudan’.48 In Abyei, Joshua Craze argues, ‘the purpose of the attacks was not to inflict a lasting military defeat, but to depopulate Abyei and make it as difficult as possible for (Ngok) civilians to return.’49 Then, after the SAF declared the end of military operations one week after its occupation, it called on the Ngok Dinka, Misseriya, and other tribes to return to Abyei town, and it was noted that the ‘Misseriya welcomed the takeover of Abyei, and it was reported that they had indeed started to move into the area.’50 In the course of 2012, plots on the Abyei market were sold to ‘Arab “traders” universally recognized among the Dinka Ngok community as former soldiers’.51 Craze refers to these movements as the creation of ‘facts on the ground’ that could be used to support claims for a future division of Abyei.52 This makes population movements and the assistance or facilitation of such movements politically charged, yet population movement is precisely what humanitarian aid to displaced people entails. By using humanitarian discourse in what is otherwise population management, processes of humanitarian aid and governance are depoliticized as relief to a ‘displaced’ population, implying a particular notion of belonging. But in what ways does this relate to the struggle over belonging that plays out between the conflict parties? When I visited the area in January 2012, slightly less than a year after the armed occupation of SAF, there was an uncertain calm over Abyei. Many humanitarian actors had withdrawn to the town of Agok, where I also stayed, as they had done previously after the 2008 invasion. The agencies spoke of looted and demolished compounds and of how Abyei town was razed to the ground. Aid actors and Abyei residents had fled during the 2008 escalation to Agok and other places further south such as Mayen Abun, Turalei, and Malual Akot. One large international NGO withdrew to the very structure it had erected in Agok after their evacuation during the 2008 escalation, which could now be used as a fall back. In and around Agok, and in the other areas south of the river, thousands of people lived in huts and tents. NGOs such as Médicins sans Frontières, Mercy Corps, Goal, Save the Children, and the UN offices of the World Food Program and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assisted the displaced, but were themselves also displaced, not only to Agok but also to Kwajok and Wunrok, and further south, where they already had offices or where they lodged or stashed their cars and some materials in compounds of other NGOs. Armed Ethiopian soldiers of UNISFA patrolled the area and monitored the agreement in which SPLA and SAF withdrew to outside the Abyei area. Although SAF was reportedly still present and seen in Abyei town, SPLA forces had withdrawn, because one of those days I accidentally drove into what must have been a camp just inside the Abyei area where men dressed in civilian clothing sheltered around an armed vehicle that was covered in camouflage nets shielded by the canopy of a cluster of trees. Most people agreed that SPLA was somehow around in the part of the Abyei area south of the river. But meanwhile, the region was depopulated from its Dinka Ngok inhabitants. The agencies in Agok expected that if hostilities resumed, it would be triggered by an incident between the two communities, to which either army would respond and which then would serve to trigger and legitimize interference. The role of the communities and their associated tribal militias and their relation to the state army was diffuse, and both armies employed militias in order to escape political consequences by the international community.53 By stressing that insecurity in Abyei was somehow part of a rebellion instigated by militias and thus the people themselves, SPLA and SAF could both escape the role of instigators and instead be seen as coming to the rescue, legitimizing military action as protecting their people. As in other flashpoints along the disputed border, such as the other two of the three areas in Blue Nile and Nuba mountains, the UN indicated that both militaries waited for reasons to invade or attack.54 As Craze indicated with regard to the previous invasion, the SAF ‘waited’ for an opportune moment to invade, seize and raze Abyei up to river Kirr in May 2011.55 The consequent permanent tension ‘made aid policy obsolete’, as one staff member noted, and added that anything could happen anytime.56 Yet, open warfare flared up elsewhere, most notably in Blue Nile and the Nuba mountains, and the odd calm remained in Abyei. In this calm, humanitarians sought to make sense of how to work in and around the complex dynamics of Abyei. UN agencies and NGOs need access to people in need and try to retain a sense of neutrality. In Agok, I interviewed a UN staff member who had just earlier that week resumed work from Abyei town after the offensive the year before.57 It was a 30 minute drive, or 20 miles or so, from Agok, on the other side of the river. It was the task of the UN staff member to assess the protection needs of the displaced population and the possibilities of return. He explained how this related to questions about the population politics of Abyei. In UNHCR jargon, determined by their mandate, uprooted people are labeled according to whether they crossed a state border or not, indicating practical and legal arrangements and entitlements. The same labels are used by humanitarian agencies. The differences between labels carry significance. People who cross a border are asylum seekers and refugees; whereas, people who remain inside their country of residence are labeled Internally Displaced People or Persons (IDPs). This distinction is relevant under international humanitarian law and other forms of recognition, beyond a mere programmatic or discursive notion. The label refugee entitles the bearer to protection under international law and is as such an official legal status; whereas, IDP refers to an operational status or a set of guidelines.58 This labelling not only entails entitlements for the target group or the intervening agency. It also denotes a political or bureaucratic understanding of belonging. These labels may thus be understood as relating to or supporting the legitimacy of a territorial claim. From a South Sudanese perspective, labelling the displaced population from Abyei as refugees would stress their crossing of a national border and could be understood as legitimizing the claim that Abyei is indeed part of Sudan. Conversely, labelling them as IDPs would imply that they were being uprooted within their own country and thus recognize Abyei as being part of South Sudan. As a result, to remain neutral and retain access, UNHCR and other aid actors spoke not about refugees or IDPs as a target community, but simply avoided supporting any possible political claim altogether by labelling them ‘People from Abyei’, creating a new genre of uprooted people. That a specific jargon was needed, different to that used elsewhere in South Sudan, added to the sense of Abyei as a boxed anomaly. Authorities from both sides wanted to influence the aid operation. In an interview in Agok with the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, the government body that dealt with aid, it became clear that it wanted UNHCR to start repatriation as soon as possible in order to re-populate the area, with an eye on the future referendum.59 NGOs should rebuild their facilities to provide services to people in Abyei town, hereby also stimulating people to return. Yet UNHCR wanted to dissociate from government directives. NGOs also voiced concerns and mentioned how they experienced intense pressure to support and advocate for repatriation.60 For NGOs to start operating, there need to be people, and for people to start moving back, there need to be some security in the sense of public services, healthcare, water and so on, which NGOs would logically deliver. Returning home in that sense was dependent on the availability of infrastructure that the UN and NGOs would go and (re)construct. The physical building of these facilities risked being understood as creating ‘facts on the ground’, especially when it was used with the intentions to cater for, or lure, the displaced Ngok populations from their temporary refuge in Agok, Turalei and elsewhere. Logically, aid actors felt highly uncomfortable with this, not in the least because it was indeed seen as contributing to this creation of ‘facts on the ground’ supporting the agenda of the southern authorities.61 Most aid actors thus took a waiting position, in which they would be able to respond to the needs of people that came back themselves, instead of facilitating their return. In several interviews with UN agency staff in January 2012 and November 2012, it was remarked that it did not make sense to start aid delivery in Abyei when only a few people were returning, yet they also did little to actively facilitate the return of people as of yet, as service provision could be seen as accommodating the South Sudanese authorities’ aim of repopulating Abyei.62 By waiting for people to return independently, UN agencies could fit the idea of not being seen as contributing to strategic population movement. Although this sounds like the opposite of a buffer, it rather implies that this buffer is also maintained by suspension, uncertainty and hesitation, as a way for aid actors to navigate complex political surroundings and to stay around and maintain a claim for access to territory and people. Before resolution: a humanitarian buffer as soft border? One way of looking at how a buffer takes shape in relation to suspension, uncertainty and hesitation is by looking at how it applies not to people per se, but rather to territory and consequently the people in that territory, regardless of ethnic or political signature. This aligns well with basic humanitarian dogmas in which impartiality is seen as a quintessential value, claim and discourse of humanitarian agencies. Impartiality means that people are aided on the basis of need and not because of ethnicity or nationality, religion, political association, social status, and so on (impartiality does not work well with borders in that sense). As a result, humanitarian idiom suggests that impartiality means that aid agencies are able to determine their own target groups and beneficiaries without being hampered or pushed by warring parties or authorities who seek to influence this. As a rule of thumb, however, authorities seek to influence aid allocation. In Abyei this situation became complicated in a different way precisely because of the essential demographic characteristic of the Abyei conflict. In this sense the evocation of a humanitarian rationale, or rather to be able to be impartial, is what this buffer entails. The SPLM government asked aid agencies to start the repatriation of the displaced with reference to, and implicit confirmation of, Abyei as a logical social and cultural part of the south. However, to stress that it was indeed the logical social and cultural territory of the Dinka Ngok, they forbade the aiding of Misseriya in the very areas where returning Dinka Ngok would/could/should go. Similarly, with the SAF still around in Abyei and the ‘anything-can-happen-every-day’ atmosphere, agencies were confused about how to deal with the situation, but they were vigilant not to be seen as implementers of the governments’ strategic desire to re-populate the area. Various UN and NGO staff explained during interviews that after the initial and hesitant return of Dinka Ngok to Abyei, there were other people in the same area they wanted to reach.63 The Misseriya in the northern part of Abyei were very difficult to access, because although the area was effectively under UNISFA control, with a specific mandate to protect the humanitarian community and its efforts, the South Sudanese authorities had forbidden any humanitarian effort reaching out to the Misseriya population. This dictate from the authorities led to questions about how to deal with the SPLA government’s desire for a repopulation of Abyei and how to go about informing or advising the displaced about conditions on the ground, on when to go, and what to expect for a safe return. Moreover, it sustained a level of mistrust about how the SPLA and its associated organizations such as the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Committee were monitoring or checking upon UN and NGOs’ intentions. For instance, one NGO worker explained in an interview that they sent local staff away from some of their staff meetings due to fears of surveillance by the authorities.64 There was also mistrust around this very issue among NGOs themselves, because some NGOs were considered more partisan to the SPLA cause, more reckless or vocal in claiming space to implement their programs, or less vigilant in their distancing from government interference. In April 2013 a programme manager of a large international agency explained during an interview in her office in Juba that they ran mobile clinics in the northern part of Abyei in a clandestine manner, meaning targeting Misseriya in areas designated by SPLA as closed for aid.65 (Later, another NGO staff member jokingly referred to similar clandestine operations, i.e. cross-border operations sneaking into forbidden or closed territory, as a form of ‘guerrilla-aid.’) As a result, the South Sudanese government threatened the NGO with expulsion from Abyei. My interviewee had just returned from the region because the NGO was trying to negotiate a continuation of its operations. Instead, the authorities had said that if the NGO was found aiding the Misseriya, it would be expelled from Agok, where it was based, just inside the Abyei area. Other NGO staff in Agok similarly indicated how their suggestions for mobile medical and water projects were forbidden by the State authorities.66 In a similar vein, during several interviews it was brought forward that it was difficult for aid actors to openly serve the non-Dinka Ngok population of Abyei.67 Similarly, Chris Johnson writes how staff from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan were often prohibited from travelling in the northern part of ‘the Box’, making working with Misseriya extremely difficult.68 Instead the UN was seeking NGOs to do it for them; in effect they were seeking to find an ‘implementing’ partner that was willing to take risk, for example by resorting to this clandestine aid delivery or in other ways manoeuvring the strict directives and limitations of the South Sudanese authorities. (My respondent named some NGOs that had a reputation for their willingness to take risks). In this way, humanitarians sought ways to maintain a sense of impartial aid delivery, yet in practice this also meant challenging these authorities’ attempts to prohibit a specific population to settle in Abyei by preventing aid from reaching them. In other words, this very aim for impartiality implied distancing themselves from the bordering policies of the South Sudanese authorities. The ways that were used to include the Misseriya in assistance provision, and the underlying claims of impartiality, are indicative of the humanitarian buffer. Aid functions as a buffer for demographic warfare by ignoring, challenging and negotiating authorities’ directives for selective service delivery. Where this very service delivery is understood as supporting the settling down of people, and implicitly supporting a claim for belonging, humanitarian vocabulary and ideas co-shape an alternative organization of space. It is not straightforward, however; the buffer takes shape by the suspension of specific categorizations and practices in order for the aid actors to either remain operative or to steer free of being manipulated into an all-too-obvious demographic agenda by the conflict parties. However, by suspending all politically sensitive terms in order to remain engaged in the governance of people and territory (even in minimal ways), aid actors confront and even deny demographic politics aimed at enacting a hard border. With this they maintain a buffer between the bordering practices of the warring sides and position humanitarian governance as legitimate practice in the borderland of Abyei. An alternative way of thinking about the deadlock of the Abyei dispute is recognizing the area as a ‘soft-border’. Indeed the border might have to be weak in order to survive at all.69 This would imply that both populations can co-exist as they used to do, without a clear demarcation of territory or territorial control between the two states, or with the protection of international grazing rights for the Misseriya.70 This soft border without definitive demarcation would rather resemble a borderland with multiple claims for governance that are mediated or kept at bay by action that denies exclusionary politics. The humanitarian buffer is a soft border in that sense, sustained by aid actors and UN agencies negotiating access to people. Conclusion This article showed how the humanitarian presence and programs in the disputed border area of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan can be understood as a buffer. It argues that the very conceptualization of, and negotiation with, categories of aid and its targets contribute to maintaining an ambiguous border space governed by a humanitarian rationale. Although at first glance the room for manoeuvre for humanitarian actors is limited, controlled and curtailed, closer scrutiny shows how the very navigation of these limitations leads to a particular form of border governance that can be understood as a humanitarian buffer. This is relevant in terms of the broader spatial effects of aid in protracted humanitarian contexts. Service delivery in protracted aid, conflict and crisis contexts shapes environments in more ways than the outcomes of planned and targeted assistance, such as responses to the plight of the displaced. Rather, through aid a larger politics of belonging is addressed as humanitarian engagement with the complex dynamics of demographic warfare and territorial dispute inevitably becomes embedded in those dynamics, which may resonate in other contexts that experience protracted humanitarian presence and programs. The ways in which aid actors in Abyei manoeuvred around the limitations imposed upon them and negated government directives to target only specific ethnic populations in effect contributed to a suspending of certain humanitarian terms and the creation of new ones, such as ‘the people from Abyei’. What started as a response to a displaced population resulted in claiming and maintaining a particular space for service delivery and protection, but implicitly also resulted in a form of territorial control, a buffer, that may shape the border area of Abyei for many years to come. Footnotes 1. Lisa Smirl, Spaces of aid: How cars, compounds and hotels shape humanitarianism (Zed Books, London, 2015). 2. Interview, International UN Staff, Kwajok, South Sudan, 7 January 2012. 3. See for instance Severine Autesserre, Peaceland: Conflict resolution and the everyday politics of international intervention (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014); David Mosse (ed.), Adventures in aidland: The anthropology of professionals in international development (Berghahn Books, New York, 2011); Dorothea Hilhorst and Bram J. Jansen, ‘Humanitarian space as arena: A perspective on the everyday politics of aid’, Development and Change 41, 6 (2010), pp. 1117–1139. 4. Rens Twijnstra and Dorothea Hilhorst, ‘Blind spots: Domestic entrepreneurship and private-sector development in South Sudan’, in Dorothea Hilhorst, Gemma van der Haar, and Bart Weijs (eds) People, aid and institutions in socio-economic recovery: Facing fragilities (Routledge, London, 2017), pp. 119–137, p. 120. 5. Karen Büscher and Koen Vlassenroot, ‘Humanitarian presence and urban development: New opportunities and contrasts in Goma, DRC’, Disasters 34, S2 (2010), pp. S256–S273; Smirl, Spaces of aid; Lisa Smirl, ‘Building the other, constructing ourselves: Spatial dimensions of international humanitarian response’, International Political Sociology 2 (2008), pp. 236–253. 6. Dianne E. Rocheleau, Philip E. Steinberg, and Patricia A. Benjamin, ‘Environment, development, crisis and crusade: Ukambani, Kenya, 1890–1990’, World Development 23 (1995), pp. 1037–1051. 7. Michael Barnett, Empire of humanity: A history of humanitarianism (Cornell University Press, Ithaka, NY, 2011); Didier Fassin, Humanitarian reason: A moral history of the present (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2012); Alex Veit, Intervention as indirect rule: Civil war and statebuilding in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Campus Verlag, Frankfurt, 2010). 8. Raymond Apthorpe, ‘With Alice in aidland: A seriously satirical allegory’, in David Mosse (ed.), Adventures in aidland (Berghahn Books, New York, 2011), pp. 199–219; Severine Autesserre, Peaceland; Smirl, Spaces of aid. 9. Barnett, Empire of humanity; Berit Bliesemann de Guevara (ed.), Statebuilding and state-formation: The political sociology of intervention (Routledge, New York, 2012); Mark Duffield, Development, security and unending war: Governing the world of peoples (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007). 10. See for instance, Dorothea Hilhorst, Disaster, conflict and society in crisis: Everyday politics of crisis response (Routledge, New York, 2013); Paul Richards, No peace no war: An anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts (James Curry, Oxford, 2005). 11. William Walters, ‘Foucault and frontiers: Notes on the birth of the humanitarian border,’ in Ulrich Bröckling, Susanne Krasmann, and Thomas Lemke (eds), Governmentality: Current issues and future challenges (Routledge, New York, 2011), pp. 138–164. 12. Eyal Weizman, The least of all possible evils: Humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza (Verso, London, 2011). 13. Jill M. Williams, ‘From humanitarian exceptionalism to contingent care: Care and enforcement at the humanitarian border,’ Political Geography 47 (2015), pp. 11–20, p. 13. 14. Michel Agier, Managing the undesirables: Refugee camps and humanitarian government (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010); Barnett, Empire of humanity; Alex de Waal, ‘The humanitarians’ tragedy: Escapable and inescapable cruelties’, Disasters 34 (2010), pp. s130–s137. 15. Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted lives, modernity and its outcasts (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2004); Mark Duffield, ‘Development, territories, and people: Consolidating the external sovereign frontier’, Alternatives 32 (2007), pp. 225–246. 16. Lionel Beehner and Gustav Meibauer, ‘The futility of buffer zones in international politics,’ Orbis 60, 2 (2016), pp. 248–265. 17. Michel Agier, Borderlands (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2016). 18. Koen Vlassenroot and Karen Büscher, ‘Borderlands, identity, and urban development: The case of Goma (Democratic Republic of the Congo)’, Urban Studies 50, 15 (2013), pp. 3168–3184. 19. Giorgio Agamben, State of exception (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005). 20. Salman M. A. Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute between north and south Sudan: Why has its resolution proven difficult?’, in John Unruh and Rohdi C. Williams (eds), Land and post-conflict peacebuilding (Earthscan, New York, 2013), pp. 21–63. 21. Hilde F. Johnson, Waging peace in Sudan: The inside story of the negotiations that ended Africa’s longest civil war (Sussex Academic Press, Eastborne, 2011). 22. Douglas H. Johnson, ‘Why Abyei matters: The breaking point of Sudan’s comprehensive peace agreement?’, African Affairs 107 (2008), pp. 1–19. 23. Zoe Cormack discusses how thinking of borders as ‘lines’ contrasts with more local Dinka understandings of borders as points. In a fascinating article, she approaches borders as galaxies, as interrelated places rather than as demarcated territories. Zoe Cormack, ‘Borders are galaxies: Interpreting contestations over local administrative boundaries in South Sudan’, Africa 68, 3 (2016), pp. 504–527. 24. Chris Johnson, ‘Peacemaking and peacekeeping: Reflections from Abyei’, International Peacekeeping 19 (2012), pp. 640–654. In October 2013, a ‘citizens’ referendum’ was held over the status of Abyei, but the government decided not to recognize it, arguably for the same reasons. 25. Johnson, ‘Peacemaking and peacekeeping’. 26. Joshua Craze, ‘Creating facts on the ground: Conflict dynamics in Abyei’ (HSBA Working Paper 26, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2011); Joshua Craze, ‘Unclear lines: State and non-state actors in Abyei’, in Christopher Vaughan, Mareike Schomerus, and Lotje De Vries (eds), The borderlands of South Sudan: Authority and identity in contemporary and historical perspective (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2013), pp. 57–88; Johnson, ‘Why Abyei matters’; Douglas H. Johnson, When boundaries become borders: The impact of boundary-making in Southern Sudan’s frontier zones (Rift Valley Institute, Nairobi, 2010); Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute’; Roger Winter and John Prendergast, ‘Abyei: Sudan’s Kashmir’ (Enough Strategy paper #11, The Enough Project, 2008). 27. For an interesting account of Abyei around the time of the 2008 ‘invasion’, see the very insightful autobiography of Medicins San Frontiers staff James Maskalyk, Six months in Sudan: A young doctor in a war-torn village (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2009). 28. IRIN / Hannah McNeish, ‘Abyei: An uncertain future’, 27 August 2013, <https://www.unocha.org/story/abyei-uncertain-future> (5 March 2018). 29. Johnson, Waging peace in Sudan. 30. Francis M. Deng, War of visions: Conflict of identities in the Sudan (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1995), p. 244. 31. Johnson, ‘Why Abyei matters’; Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute’. 32. Johan Brosché, ‘Abyei: The Kashmir of Sudan’, New Routes 17, 2 (2012), pp. 26–29; Winter and Prendergast, ‘Abyei: Sudan’s Kashmir’. 33. Interview, International UN Staff, Kwajok, South Sudan, 7 January 2012. 34. IRIN, ‘Abyei’s dangerous impasse’, 10 October 2013, <http://www.irinnews.org/fr/report/98910/briefing-abyei-s-dangerous-impasse> (5 March 2018). 35. Dov Lynch, Engaging Eurasia’s separatist states: Unresolved conflicts and de facto states (USIP Press, Washington, DC, 2004). 36. Behlul Özkan, ‘Who gains from the “no war no peace” situation? A critical analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’, Geopolitics 13 (2008), pp. 572–599. 37. An alternative resolution was voiced at the prolongation of the Security Council mandate for UNISFA in 2015. The South Sudanese ambassador to the UN advocated the establishment of an international protectorate over Abyei, arguing that since both the South Sudanese and the Sudanese governments rejected the idea of a joint administration over the status of the Misseriya as residents, a deadlock prevents any way forward. An administration that would allow security, services and some socio-economic activity, would allow the parties to come together and work out a durable solution in relative cooperation. See ‘South Sudan recommends international protectorate for Abyei’, Sudan Tribune, 14 July 2015, <http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php ?article55710> (5 March 2018). 38. Robert O. Collins, A history of modern Sudan (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008); Alex de Waal, Famine crimes: Politics and the disaster relief industry in Africa (James Currey, Oxford, 1997); Douglas H. Johnson, The root causes of Sudan’s civil wars (James Curry, Oxford, 2007); David Keen, The benefits of famine: A political economy of famine and relief in southwestern Sudan 1983–89 (James Currey, Oxford, 2008); Jok M. Jok, Sudan: Race, religion, and violence (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2007). 39. Johnson, The root causes of Sudan’s civil wars. 40. Douglas H. Johnson, ‘The Heglig oil dispute between Sudan and South Sudan’, Journal of Eastern African Studies 6 (2012), pp. 561–569, p. 565. 41. Collins, A history of modern Sudan, p. 265; Craze, ‘Unclear lines’, p. 88. 42. Johnson, ‘Peacemaking and peacekeeping’, p. 643. 43. Prunier looks at the history of Sudan not as a country but rather as an ‘ongoing imperial conquest’ with the Sudanese ‘state’ as a predatory entity that feeds on exploits in the periphery such as slaves for labour. He writes that ‘the Sudan’, its limits, shape and borders, ‘while very relevant at micro level, were completely vague and imprecise at the macro level’. See Gerard Prunier, ‘Why did South Sudan blow up in December 2013 and what is likely to happen as a result?’, Sudan Studies 51 (2015), pp. 7–22. 44. Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute’, p. 21. 45. Douglas H. Johnson, ‘The road back from Abyei’, 14 January 2011, Rift Valley Institute, <http://riftvalley.net/publication/road-back-abyei#.WEA66X0R9iY> (5 March 2018). 46. Craze, ‘Creating facts on the ground’, p. 24. See also IRIN, ‘Abyei’s dangerous impasse’. 47. Interview, international UN staff, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10 January 2012; Interview, international Embassy staff, Juba, South Sudan, 26 November 2012. 48. Maskalyk, Six months in Sudan, p. 14. 49. Craze, ‘Unclear lines’, p. 75. 50. Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute’, p. 49. 51. Tim Flatman, ‘How yesterday’s agreement on oil could lead to war between the Sudans, not avert it,’ Sudan Tribune, 4 August 2012, <http://www.sudantribune.com/How-yesterday-s-agreement-on-oil,43469> (5 March 2018). 52. Craze, ‘Creating facts on the ground’, 12. 53. It is tempting to view the clashes between militias as forms of tribal warfare, yet as Craze and others show, these groups were effectively instruments of the state – Craze, ‘Creating facts on the ground’. 54. Interview, international UN staff, Kwajok, South Sudan, 7 January 2012. 55. Craze, ‘Creating Facts on the Ground’, p. 41. 56. Interview, international NGO staff, Agok, (South) Sudan, 11 January 2012. 57. Interview, international UN staff, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10 January 2012. 58. These guidelines are referred to as the ‘Guiding principles on internal displacement’, or more colloquially, the ‘Deng principles’, after the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons Francis M. Deng who wrote the report in 1998. See United Nations Commission on Human Rights, ‘Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Francis M. Deng, submitted pursuant to Commission resolution 1997/39. Addendum: Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’ (UN, Geneva, 1998). Ironically, many people in the field remarked that Deng, who was widely known, is a grandson of the very man who was responsible for the handover of Abyei to Kordofan province in 1905. 59. Interview, two national staff members, South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, Agok, (South) Sudan, 11 January 2012. 60. Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 23 April 2013; Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 22 April 2013. 61. Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 19 April 2013. 62. Interview, International UN staff member, Kwajok, South Sudan, 6 January 2012; Interview, International UN staff member, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10 January 2012; International UN staff member, Juba, South Sudan, 27 November 2012. 63. Interview, International UN staff member, Juba, South Sudan, 27 November 2012; Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 22 April 2013; Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 23 April 2013. 64. Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 22 April 2013. 65. Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 23 April 2013. 66. Interviews and conversations with a variety of international NGO staff, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10–11 January 2012. 67. Interview, International UN staff member, Kwajok, South Sudan, 6 January, 2012; Interview, International UN staff member, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10 January 2012; Interview, International UN staff member, Juba South Sudan, 27 November 2012. 68. See also Johnson, ‘Peacemaking and peacekeeping’, p. 647. 69. Jérôme Tubiana, ‘Sudan and South Sudan inch towards war’, Foreign Affairs, 8 October, 2013, <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/sudan/2013-10-08/sudan-and-south-sudan-inch-toward-war> (5 March 2018). 70. Roberto Belloni, ‘The birth of South Sudan and the challenges of peacebuilding’, Ethnopolitics 10, 3–4 (2011), pp. 411–429; Johnson, ‘The road back from Abyei’. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png African Affairs Oxford University Press

Humanitarianism as buffer: Displacement, aid and the politics of belonging in Abyei, Sudan/South Sudan

African Affairs , Volume Advance Article (468) – May 8, 2018

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Oxford University Press
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0001-9909
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Abstract

Abstract This article explores how the humanitarian presence and programs in the disputed border area of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan can be understood as a buffer between conflicting parties, rather than as mere assistance to a displaced population. It aims to contribute to debates about the spatial impact of humanitarian governance and the politicization of aid in protracted crisis contexts, and specifically in relation to territorial disputes and border struggles. It is based on ethnographic fieldwork in South Sudan between 2011 and 2013. The article argues that the humanitarian response became part of the politics of belonging that lies at the heart of the dispute. The very acts of labelling, categorizing, and maintaining the subjects of aid are highly political, such as the creation of the category of the ‘people of Abyei’ in contrast to refugees or Internally Displaced People. As a result, the interventions have sustained governance over the territory and can be understood as a humanitarian buffer that may shape the border area of Abyei for many years to come. Humanitarian aid is part of, and effects, social, political and economic relations, yet its spatial and material effects are not always conceived of as productive practice with implications beyond the immediate aim of assisting people. Normative and practical approaches to humanitarian practice view aid as responding to immediate and objective needs and risk neglecting the ‘auxiliary space’ that it produces as unintended yet tangible effects of intervention, or externalizing this as unintended consequences or exceptional irregularities.1 This article examines the spatial practices of humanitarian agencies in a disputed border area between Sudan and South Sudan. Although any confirmation or legitimization of the border between the two states is not the purpose or aim of humanitarian aid, the effort to assist a displaced population, and ultimately the return of people to their respective home areas, is part of a politics of belonging that may affect this confirmation or legitimization in unforeseen ways. I argue that in the process of seeking ways to navigate the complex political environment of Abyei, aid programs and actors maintained and consolidated a humanitarian buffer which mitigates the exclusionary politics of the parties vying for control over Abyei and its people. This buffer contributes to the negation and suspension of a hard border and sustains an ambiguous and undetermined borderland, co-shaped and co-governed by a humanitarian rationale and praxis. Although this article focuses on a particular case, the process involved may be emblematic of more general effects of long-term humanitarian engagement with and in protracted conflict areas, where aid and relief materializes as a much more tangible and intimate form of governance and control. South Sudan became an independent country by separating from Sudan on 9 July 2011. Although a formal independence was declared, the precise border demarcation had yet to be decided upon. One of those disputed border areas concerns the region of Abyei. In the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement it was laid down that the population of Abyei would be given the chance to decide in which Sudan they wish to belong in a referendum to be held in January 2011, and until that time the region would be jointly administered by the Sudanese and autonomous South Sudanese government and their respective armed forces. In May 2011 however, just a few months prior to independence, and in a repetition of similar events in 2008, the joint administration arrangement broke down when clashes broke out between the two forces, and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) ‘invaded’ and occupied Abyei. Most of the population of Abyei fled south, as well as the UN and humanitarian NGOs. An international settlement resulted in a transitional period in which the region was demilitarized and monitored by the United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA) in anticipation of a permanent settlement between the two countries. The thrust of this article was born during an interview with a European UN staff member who suggested that the response of UNISFA and humanitarian agencies—protecting, maintaining and servicing the disputed border territory—represented a ‘new Cyprus in the making’, referring to the long lasting UN buffer zone known as the Green Line between the opposing sides in Cyprus.2 In Abyei, he implied, UN forces would separate the two countries at this particular flashpoint for years, possibly decades to come, with humanitarian agencies assisting the displaced for the unforeseeable future. This raises questions about the ways in which humanitarian aid relates to the politics of war, but also the ways in which humanitarians position themselves and their organizations with regard to their own role in the Abyei spectacle, and the consequences of this position. The article shows how aid actors created a particular category of displaced people—‘the people of Abyei’—as a way to engage with the local political landscape, which allowed them to provide aid without ostensibly taking a political position in the dispute. By doing so, aid actors sustained a particular sense of belonging for its beneficiaries/targets, and the humanitarian vocabulary and ideology ultimately contributed to an alternative organization of space. The actions of the armed forces and their allied militias were understood to deliberately displace parts of the population and depopulate territory as a form of demographic warfare. Yet, the responses and intervention of the aid agencies were categorized as humanitarian responses to a more generalized notion of ‘forced displacement’, which suggests that their target population could also be circumstantial victims of more generalized violence rather than political subjects in broader processes of border struggle. Indeed, the idea that humanitarians consolidate or assist in the deliberate attempts of warring parties to engage in the uprooting of specific ethnic groups is irreconcilable with humanitarian non-partisanship. The generalized discourses of emergency aid, relief, and humanitarianism depoliticize and obscure the association with intentional demographic warfare. However, it is very complicated to dissociate aid and the dispute in this particular case, and this may be true for complex conflict arenas in general. In Abyei, aid, displacement and demographic warfare were closely related and shaped a very specific context of intervention in which aid actors sought to manoeuvre. The article looks at how this manoeuvring came about and to what effects, and how aid relates to the disputed border area of Abyei. After a short methodological note, the article discusses the idea of a humanitarian buffer, and then zooms in on Abyei as a disputed area. It analyses how aid categorization and practice relate to demographic warfare, in order to show how a buffer is maintained by humanitarian means over Abyei. It contributes to debates about the spatial and political impacts of humanitarian governance in protracted aid contexts, and more specifically in relation to entrenched territorial disputes and border struggles. The understanding of the manifestation of humanitarianism in these specific contexts contributes to a more grounded knowledge of the spatial and socio-political effects of humanitarian governance in relation to bordering processes. Crucially, it argues that through aid, humanitarian actors impact and govern the politics of belonging. Methodology This article results from an ethnographic study into the ways aid actors perceived, anticipated and manoeuvred insecurity in South Sudan after secession from Sudan. Data gathering consisted of visiting aid agencies in their field locations, formal and informal interviews with aid staff and local authorities, and ‘hanging out’ with aid staff and local people in the everyday environment in which humanitarian responses materialize. In this capacity I spent eight months in various locations in South Sudan between early 2011 and late 2013, including the Abyei area. As a consequence of the sensitivity of the topic of study, all references to staff members of the UN and NGOs are anonymized, which was a condition for most aid actors to participate in the study. In addition to just being a methodological complexity, this condition highlights the sensitivity of maintaining humanitarian access in South Sudan. The insistence on anonymity can be understood as a necessary condition for working in a complex political environment in which humanitarian actors, willingly and unwillingly, are an essential part of the socio-political and security landscape. From the ways humanitarian actors narrated their dealing with demanding governments, other NGOs and the UN, it becomes clear that to navigate these complex politics in order to maintain a humanitarian image yet get things done on the ground, is a sensitive and sometimes secretive and counter-intuitive affair. In order to gain an understanding of this environment and the experiences and positioning of aid actors, this study applied ethnography to study humanitarian agencies, aid culture, rationales, programs and their effects. It is inspired by a recent emerging literature on the anthropology of aid, or ‘aidnography’,3 that allows for an actor oriented approach to studying crisis response, in which the everyday practices of aid are understood as the outcome of social negotiation and processes of sense making in ‘complex intervention arenas’.4 Often, it seemed, aid actors were not fully aware of their political roles, and the politics inherent to interventions aimed at delivering services to people. For instance, the dilemmas of dealing with local authorities were at times difficult to align with aid actors’ convictions about the necessity of their presence, the legitimacy of their principled approaches, and the prerogative of their access to the field, even in the face of security risks and the potential impact on their room for manoeuvre. Over the course of the fieldwork I met a diversity of UN and NGO actors, authorities, and local people, in formal and informal settings, and in head offices but also in compounds and other places ‘in the field’. The ethnographic approach allowed me to explore practices, perceptions, and perspectives in the humanitarian arena, taking contradictions, positionality and personality into account. Humanitarian border or buffer? Aid impacts on local environments in other ways than only by programmatic or project outcomes directed to assist people or governments.5 Aid materializes in unforeseen ways in its manifestation as organizations, buildings, compounds and other infrastructure, and projects cycles, bureaucratic and social categorizations, but also lifestyles and routines that affect the social and political environment in which aid comes about. Consequently, humanitarians do not only respond as external agents to crises, but also contribute to the shaping of local dynamics in which current and future crises emerge and exist.6 In the past years, an increasing theoretical focus on humanitarianism as a form of governance has emerged, based on practical experiences and the consequences of disaster and crisis intervention, emergency aid, post-conflict reconstruction, and other labels that are bestowed on a broad range of activities associated with humanitarian action.7 A perspective on ‘aid as governance’ moves beyond a normative and practical understanding of humanitarianism, which has remained occupied with questions around—and hereby reinforces—aid as a temporary, principled, non-political action, or as a moral imperative. Instead, several authors convincingly argue that this depoliticization of aid is an episteme inherent to aid culture,8 and by using this operational approach, and focusing on the response to humanitarian needs, other effects of aid presence and programming remain obscure. The notion of humanitarian governance, instead, embraces how aid and assistance in protracted crises engages in the governance of people and places in a complex power relation with local authorities, and in some cases works to effectively administer territory. A focus on humanitarian governance highlights two concerns. First, humanitarian aid, instead of a mere assistance, moral attribute or necessity in crisis response, is increasingly understood as a form of global governance.9 International aid actors then are part of the governance of crisis-effected landscapes, together with formal authorities, rebel groups, private parties, and others that take part in processes of hybrid governance. Humanitarianism as governance highlights how aid is embedded and shapes local power configurations and political economies as aid landscapes, which may affect many aspects of everyday life, politics and governance. The second concern has to do with temporality and exception. Whereas a practical and normative approach to emergency assistance and humanitarian aid would concentrate on crisis as a temporary state of affairs and aid interventions as a temporary assistance on an aspirational road (back) to development, it is increasingly problematic to discern crisis from non-crisis, and peace from war.10 Instead, many aid contexts show protracted crisis-like circumstances, in which crisis is an imminent, recurring or periodic possibility, and in that sense has become routine. Many contemporary humanitarian contexts have been so for a considerable time. Contexts with violent episodes, and where more-or-less fragile yet stable settlements and ambiguous ‘no-peace no-war’ situations rotate are the playing field of protracted and/or consecutive aid operations that may last for years or decades, with considerable routine and blurring of mandates. These may be presented as crisis contexts nonetheless and they open up, sustain and legitimize claims for intervention to act on behalf of people in need, in powerful regimes of legal and moral regulations and lobbying. Combined, the notion of aid as governance and its manifestation as response to protracted or semi-permanent crises results in a de facto humanitarian governance of territories for durations that surpass immediacy, and in which the language of aid or assistance deflects from the power and socio-economic effects beyond the direct programmatic aim of such interventions. One perspective that stresses such effects is the literature on the ‘humanitarian border,’ understood as the coming together and merging of the militarized boundaries of the Global North and the humanitarian responses that deal with the human collateral that amasses around these borders.11 The concept suggests that increasingly humanitarian rationales and practices overlap with other strategies of governmentality such as militarization, surveillance and securitization,12 and herewith maintains a ‘space of governance where human life is regulated in the name of preserving biological life and alleviating suffering’.13 Although the humanitarian border is perceived to have emerged around the boundaries of the global north, it can also be recognized as having materialized on a global scale in a variety of shapes, for instance as protracted refugee camps, but also as less demarcated areas in which protracted aid operations take the shape of humanitarian protectorates or forms of engagement that evoke notions of ‘empire’.14 In that sense, sites that produce rebellion, instability, or forced migrants, that in one way or another form a potential risk or moral concern for that global north, are regarded as frontier lands that need to be contained, controlled and surveilled.15 However, although the concept of a humanitarian border in Abyei captures some aspects of the processes at work, I suggest it is rather the obscuring and even negation of bordering processes that is more relevant here. Instead of a border, the concept of a buffer is more appropriate. Borders and boundaries signify a separation. They are maintained with the intention to discriminate and determine who or what belongs to the inside and what remains outside of the border. A buffer instead is not so much about a separation, but rather the mitigation of that, and signifies a cushion preventing the impact of the meeting of two sides.16 Abyei in this sense can be understood as an intermediate territory that prevents conflict between two larger parties, in which the population is temporarily settled and aided until it can move (back) to its definitive place, but in the meanwhile constitutes an alternative borderland. Rather than a political or geographical boundary as a fixed line in space, the notion of a borderland implies a situation in which uncertainty, mobility and threat is part of everyday experience.17 Aid, humanitarianism and international intervention co-shape this borderland, among other actors, authorities and powerholders.18 As such, we can question to what extent humanitarian action maintains a buffer that in effect negates a ‘hard’ border demarcation, expressed in Abyei by processes of violent expulsion and uprooting of a particular people as deliberate depopulation. As the role of aid actors consolidates, the humanitarian buffer normalizes and becomes a more permanent feature of the borderland, with a particular role for humanitarian organizations in the organization of space, services and people. Humanitarian governance, as an amalgam of socio-economic programming and public service delivery, contributes to the shaping and maintaining of the borderland between Sudan and South Sudan in Abyei. Gradually it sheds the notion of an external and incidental aid response for a much more tangible and socio-political impact on the local environment, which moves along with episodes of escalation in armed conflict and relative stability. In the context of the disputed borderland, any attempt or suggestion by humanitarians that people are entitled to settle or return to a specific territory, and its spatial and material manifestation in the form of programs such as repatriation exercises, reconstruction of infrastructure such as schools and hospitals and so on, can be understood as related to a politics of belonging. Following Giorgio Agamben’s understanding of sovereign power, border demarcation is about the power to exclude, and thus about who belongs and who does not.19 By viewing humanitarian programming as related to a politics of belonging, it follows that practical programs to assist people to survive in exile, or to return to their original homelands, and associated forms of service delivery to a humanitarian target population, become part of power politics over the question who belongs and who does not, and who determines this. But rather than exerting direct power, aid actors’ impact is more implicit. Cars, compounds, humanitarian discourse, regulations, and repatriation practices implicitly play into this question of inclusion, and as such affect the constitution of the borderland as a space where sovereign power takes shape by the decisions to exclude and include. It is in this sense that I argue that a humanitarian buffer has taken shape in the disputed territory of Abyei on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. While the main discourse on international assistance in Abyei is that humanitarian aid supported displaced populations in order to be able to return ‘home’, leaving the parties in dispute to settle their disagreements, the combined aid effort functioned as a buffer against the excesses of demographic warfare. By doing so, it became integral to that demographic warfare, but as a buffer between two claimants, a position in which humanitarians had to camouflage, suspend and maintain their own conceptualization of specific categories and geographies of belonging. As a result, paradoxes came into being. As shown in what follows, questions over belonging were essential in the Abyei dispute, and population movement—what interventions in forced migration and refugee protection are all about—is ultimately about belonging. Thus, programmatic and discursive notions of displacement, return and repatriation were imbued with ideological and political meaning, which is at odds with how humanitarian actors tend to position themselves in conflict arenas. Facing Abyei Abyei is an exemplar of the conflict at large, containing all the popular imaginations of the 1983–2005 war (and the earlier period of armed conflict between 1955 and 1972) in one socio-spatial context. It captures the binary fallacies of the Sudanese war as a conflict between the north and the south; Muslims versus Christians; Arab versus African; suppressor versus suppressed. Abyei in this popular imagination marks the ambiguous position of the (old) Sudan as bridging the Arab and the African world and, by being part of North as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, romantically, but not accurately, marked in the landscape by a river that runs through it, and that in Arab is known as the Bahr al Arab, and in Dinka as river Kiir. It makes it a border area not only in political, but also in geographical, social and symbolic understanding, as was reiterated in the ways people from Abyei but also elsewhere in South Sudan spoke about the region. The Abyei area is in the southern part of South Kordofan province. In the Abyei protocol, the area is defined as the ‘area of the nine Ngok Dinka Chiefdoms transferred to Kordofan in 1905’, and indicates that the Dinka Ngok, as a sub-tribe of the South Sudanese Dinka, and as such more associated with the south than with the north, ended up under a northern administration.20 Prior to 1905, the lands of the Dinka Ngok were part of the province of Bahr al Ghazal under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the colonial administration of Sudan. Insecurity due to conflicts between the Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya sub-tribe of the Baqqara, nomadic pastoralists who cross into Abyei as part of a seasonal migration from the north, was the reason to bring the two parties under one governing body as to better manage the struggles and disputes between the two populations. In this way, a people that culturally associated with the south became part of the north as ‘Southerners’ living in the ‘northern’ province of Kordofan.21 When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, the future status of Abyei was scheduled to be determined by a referendum to be held simultaneously with the referendum deciding on unity or separation for the whole of South Sudan. In this separate referendum, the population of Abyei would get to vote on staying with Sudan, or joining the newly independent South Sudan. This was not unprecedented, and adds to the special status of Abyei. The Addis Ababa peace accords of 1972 included a similar clause with a referendum to decide whether Abyei would belong to the autonomous southern region or remain with Kordofan as part of Sudan.22 While the south was granted autonomy as a result of these Addis Ababa accords, somehow the ‘Abyei problem’ was left unresolved and the referendum was postponed. The Abyei referendum that was scheduled for 2011 was never held. This was partly due to a dispute about the precise territorial demarcation of Abyei,23 and as a consequence of this, about who exactly belongs to Abyei and would get to vote in the referendum.24 As the different parties in Sudan could not agree on these terms, the SPLM/A decided to agree with postponing the Abyei referendum, and to give priority to the South Sudan referendum first. In this way, they could go ahead with their separation, leaving the Abyei issue for later resolution, in the meanwhile installing a separate oversight committee to deal with governing the ambiguously demarcated area. Abyei was so contentious that the CPA would arguably not have been possible without leaving the Abyei issue unresolved. Solving the Abyei problem would raise so many complexities that the basis for agreement on other topics, and the overall peace, would be compromised.25 A detailed narration, chronology and analysis of the intricacies of the political agreements and resolutions concerning Abyei is beyond the scope of this article, and others have done so in detail.26 Sufficient for my argument here is to lay down how Abyei was and is the scene of unresolved dispute with specific historical and ethnic roots, in which both states disagree on the exact demarcation of the area, on who has rights of residency, and who is to govern it. In May 2011, just a few months before secession and repeating events in 2008,27 Abyei was occupied by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). In practice this meant that violent clashes between the SAF and SPLA ended a shared administration under the CPA. An estimated 100,000 people,28 most of the Dinka Ngok population of Abyei, fled south, as well as the UN and humanitarian NGOs that operated from and were based in the region. Thus, when South Sudan seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, the precise boundaries between the two states remained disputed, as was also the case in the Nuba mountains and Blue Nile. An international settlement resulted in a transitional period in which the region was demilitarized and monitored by the Ethiopian-led United Nations Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA) in anticipation of a permanent settlement between the two countries. The UN and humanitarian actors referred to the Abyei area as ‘The Box’ as it was indicated as a separate boxed territory on UN maps. The Box could also describe a place that defies logical and practical resolution. Hilde Johnson, the former head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, writes about Abyei as an anomaly, and suggests that the background of the conflict is unique.29 As Francis Deng wrote earlier: ‘unless the issue of Abyei is resolved, it will always be a source of conflict between the north and the south.’30 Abyei was generally regarded as a flashpoint that could reignite the war.31 Others referred to it as Sudan’s ‘Kashmir,’32 indicating a long standing dispute to which two countries lay intractable claims as a result of separation. One aid worker I interviewed referred to Abyei as a new Cyprus in the making,33 with UN forces separating the two countries at this particular flashpoint for possibly decades to come, and humanitarian agencies assisting the affected people for the unforeseeable future as a result of this ‘intractable referendum dispute’.34 The comparison to Cyprus is interesting because it refers to a long lasting UN mission acting as a buffer between two conflicting sides that both lay claim on territory and belonging. Since 1964, the United Nations Force in Cyprus maintains the United Nations Buffer Zone, or Green or Atilla Line, which separates the Cyprus National Guard and Turkish army. The aid worker referred to Cyprus as an example of a conflict that seems to be without resolution and as a result necessitated a long-term military UN intervention. Others have referred to seemingly intractable conflicts such as these as ‘frozen conflicts’,35 which implies situations where ceasefires may exist, but where conflict is unresolved. In addition to Cyprus, stalled conflicts such as in Kashmir and Nagorno-Karabach produce similar debates about a supposed ‘ethnic incompatibility, ancient hatreds, and historical injustices’ as the main drivers and perpetuation of these irresolvable conflicts.36 In the case of Abyei, there is not so much a freezing of conflict, rather it is the dynamic presence and programs of international actors such as the UN and NGOs, protected (in theory) by armed peacekeepers, that keeps demographic warfare at bay. In Abyei, rather than a military border demarcation, it is the normalization of humanitarian services, presence and targeting that gives shape to the borderland, along with a UN force. As such, the suggestion of a status quo is false in that it is not frozen at all, but rather there is a humanitarian buffer which is actively maintained, that allows political and state actors to postpone and suspend further resolution—meanwhile maintaining their respective demographic claims. The reference to a ‘new Cyprus in the making’ is telling because in Abyei there is no immediate resolution other than the buffer.37 Humanitarian agencies, and especially those that are engaged with problems of displacement, are essentially engaged in a politics of belonging. Humanitarian discourse is exemplary in this regard: displacement, repatriation, reconstruction are all labels that are bestowed on people and situations that in one way or another demarcate a condition, a ‘normality’, that was disrupted by crisis and disaster. It is important to interrogate the intended and unintended ways humanitarian responses to forced migration such as refugee repatriation, but also rehabilitation efforts of physical infrastructure, relate to a (re)construction or affirmation of belonging, and understand these in relation to the dynamics of demographic warfare in Abyei. Demographic warfare and ‘the people of Abyei’ In the history of the armed conflict in Sudan, forced population movements, humanitarian aid, and the economy of war have been closely related.38 Strategies to unsettle and displace populations as part of armed conflict have included asset stripping, slavery, instigating famine by closing routes to markets, sieges and scorched earth tactics. As part of the war effort, economic and demographic rationales come together in attempts to control and influence population movements.39 Examples include the ethnic cleansing of areas in Kordofan, Upper-Nile and Unity by the government that cleared large areas of land for the oil industry in the 1990s,40 and the deliberate displacement of people from Abyei for the purpose of resource extraction and to settle Baqqara herdsmen on Dinka lands.41 Similarly in Abyei after the 2011 occupation it was noted that ‘when the SAF did finally leave they stripped everything, even school roofs’,42 as if they wanted to leave no material proof or reason for belonging, or claim thereof, behind.43 The initial struggle over who controls Abyei increasingly became about who belongs to the area, and the dispute shifted ‘from the limits and the boundaries of the Abyei area to whether the Misseriya were entitled to participate in the referendum’.44 The crux in the conflict thus became about who could be regarded as the legitimate residents of Abyei.45 SPLA maintained that other than Dinka Ngok, the Misseriya only held grazing rights, and as such would not be eligible to vote. This problem not only held back the referendum in 2011, but it also highlighted a northern agenda in that if Sudan wished to stand a chance in a referendum, it needed Misseriya to participate, and hence needed to prove, show, or claim a credible sense of belonging or residency for the Misseriya population. One way of doing this was by altering the balance between Dinka Ngok and Misseriya residents that are understood as belonging to, or settled in, Abyei. The reluctance among southern parties to give in to the demand to include the Misseriya in the referendum was the result of a fear that an unknown electorate would surface to vote against joining with South Sudan. In anticipation of this, the Abyei Administration claimed that the Sudanese government had been settling Misseriya in the northern part of Abyei for precisely this purpose,46 and UN and Embassy staff I interviewed indicated the same.47 In a similar vein, a doctor who worked in Abyei during the 2008 escalation writes: ‘Everything around Abyei was a vacuum built by 20 years of guns. One that both sides, South and North, were trying to get people from all over Sudan to fill in preparation for a referendum that was to determine Abyei’s fate, and with it, the destiny of Sudan’.48 In Abyei, Joshua Craze argues, ‘the purpose of the attacks was not to inflict a lasting military defeat, but to depopulate Abyei and make it as difficult as possible for (Ngok) civilians to return.’49 Then, after the SAF declared the end of military operations one week after its occupation, it called on the Ngok Dinka, Misseriya, and other tribes to return to Abyei town, and it was noted that the ‘Misseriya welcomed the takeover of Abyei, and it was reported that they had indeed started to move into the area.’50 In the course of 2012, plots on the Abyei market were sold to ‘Arab “traders” universally recognized among the Dinka Ngok community as former soldiers’.51 Craze refers to these movements as the creation of ‘facts on the ground’ that could be used to support claims for a future division of Abyei.52 This makes population movements and the assistance or facilitation of such movements politically charged, yet population movement is precisely what humanitarian aid to displaced people entails. By using humanitarian discourse in what is otherwise population management, processes of humanitarian aid and governance are depoliticized as relief to a ‘displaced’ population, implying a particular notion of belonging. But in what ways does this relate to the struggle over belonging that plays out between the conflict parties? When I visited the area in January 2012, slightly less than a year after the armed occupation of SAF, there was an uncertain calm over Abyei. Many humanitarian actors had withdrawn to the town of Agok, where I also stayed, as they had done previously after the 2008 invasion. The agencies spoke of looted and demolished compounds and of how Abyei town was razed to the ground. Aid actors and Abyei residents had fled during the 2008 escalation to Agok and other places further south such as Mayen Abun, Turalei, and Malual Akot. One large international NGO withdrew to the very structure it had erected in Agok after their evacuation during the 2008 escalation, which could now be used as a fall back. In and around Agok, and in the other areas south of the river, thousands of people lived in huts and tents. NGOs such as Médicins sans Frontières, Mercy Corps, Goal, Save the Children, and the UN offices of the World Food Program and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assisted the displaced, but were themselves also displaced, not only to Agok but also to Kwajok and Wunrok, and further south, where they already had offices or where they lodged or stashed their cars and some materials in compounds of other NGOs. Armed Ethiopian soldiers of UNISFA patrolled the area and monitored the agreement in which SPLA and SAF withdrew to outside the Abyei area. Although SAF was reportedly still present and seen in Abyei town, SPLA forces had withdrawn, because one of those days I accidentally drove into what must have been a camp just inside the Abyei area where men dressed in civilian clothing sheltered around an armed vehicle that was covered in camouflage nets shielded by the canopy of a cluster of trees. Most people agreed that SPLA was somehow around in the part of the Abyei area south of the river. But meanwhile, the region was depopulated from its Dinka Ngok inhabitants. The agencies in Agok expected that if hostilities resumed, it would be triggered by an incident between the two communities, to which either army would respond and which then would serve to trigger and legitimize interference. The role of the communities and their associated tribal militias and their relation to the state army was diffuse, and both armies employed militias in order to escape political consequences by the international community.53 By stressing that insecurity in Abyei was somehow part of a rebellion instigated by militias and thus the people themselves, SPLA and SAF could both escape the role of instigators and instead be seen as coming to the rescue, legitimizing military action as protecting their people. As in other flashpoints along the disputed border, such as the other two of the three areas in Blue Nile and Nuba mountains, the UN indicated that both militaries waited for reasons to invade or attack.54 As Craze indicated with regard to the previous invasion, the SAF ‘waited’ for an opportune moment to invade, seize and raze Abyei up to river Kirr in May 2011.55 The consequent permanent tension ‘made aid policy obsolete’, as one staff member noted, and added that anything could happen anytime.56 Yet, open warfare flared up elsewhere, most notably in Blue Nile and the Nuba mountains, and the odd calm remained in Abyei. In this calm, humanitarians sought to make sense of how to work in and around the complex dynamics of Abyei. UN agencies and NGOs need access to people in need and try to retain a sense of neutrality. In Agok, I interviewed a UN staff member who had just earlier that week resumed work from Abyei town after the offensive the year before.57 It was a 30 minute drive, or 20 miles or so, from Agok, on the other side of the river. It was the task of the UN staff member to assess the protection needs of the displaced population and the possibilities of return. He explained how this related to questions about the population politics of Abyei. In UNHCR jargon, determined by their mandate, uprooted people are labeled according to whether they crossed a state border or not, indicating practical and legal arrangements and entitlements. The same labels are used by humanitarian agencies. The differences between labels carry significance. People who cross a border are asylum seekers and refugees; whereas, people who remain inside their country of residence are labeled Internally Displaced People or Persons (IDPs). This distinction is relevant under international humanitarian law and other forms of recognition, beyond a mere programmatic or discursive notion. The label refugee entitles the bearer to protection under international law and is as such an official legal status; whereas, IDP refers to an operational status or a set of guidelines.58 This labelling not only entails entitlements for the target group or the intervening agency. It also denotes a political or bureaucratic understanding of belonging. These labels may thus be understood as relating to or supporting the legitimacy of a territorial claim. From a South Sudanese perspective, labelling the displaced population from Abyei as refugees would stress their crossing of a national border and could be understood as legitimizing the claim that Abyei is indeed part of Sudan. Conversely, labelling them as IDPs would imply that they were being uprooted within their own country and thus recognize Abyei as being part of South Sudan. As a result, to remain neutral and retain access, UNHCR and other aid actors spoke not about refugees or IDPs as a target community, but simply avoided supporting any possible political claim altogether by labelling them ‘People from Abyei’, creating a new genre of uprooted people. That a specific jargon was needed, different to that used elsewhere in South Sudan, added to the sense of Abyei as a boxed anomaly. Authorities from both sides wanted to influence the aid operation. In an interview in Agok with the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, the government body that dealt with aid, it became clear that it wanted UNHCR to start repatriation as soon as possible in order to re-populate the area, with an eye on the future referendum.59 NGOs should rebuild their facilities to provide services to people in Abyei town, hereby also stimulating people to return. Yet UNHCR wanted to dissociate from government directives. NGOs also voiced concerns and mentioned how they experienced intense pressure to support and advocate for repatriation.60 For NGOs to start operating, there need to be people, and for people to start moving back, there need to be some security in the sense of public services, healthcare, water and so on, which NGOs would logically deliver. Returning home in that sense was dependent on the availability of infrastructure that the UN and NGOs would go and (re)construct. The physical building of these facilities risked being understood as creating ‘facts on the ground’, especially when it was used with the intentions to cater for, or lure, the displaced Ngok populations from their temporary refuge in Agok, Turalei and elsewhere. Logically, aid actors felt highly uncomfortable with this, not in the least because it was indeed seen as contributing to this creation of ‘facts on the ground’ supporting the agenda of the southern authorities.61 Most aid actors thus took a waiting position, in which they would be able to respond to the needs of people that came back themselves, instead of facilitating their return. In several interviews with UN agency staff in January 2012 and November 2012, it was remarked that it did not make sense to start aid delivery in Abyei when only a few people were returning, yet they also did little to actively facilitate the return of people as of yet, as service provision could be seen as accommodating the South Sudanese authorities’ aim of repopulating Abyei.62 By waiting for people to return independently, UN agencies could fit the idea of not being seen as contributing to strategic population movement. Although this sounds like the opposite of a buffer, it rather implies that this buffer is also maintained by suspension, uncertainty and hesitation, as a way for aid actors to navigate complex political surroundings and to stay around and maintain a claim for access to territory and people. Before resolution: a humanitarian buffer as soft border? One way of looking at how a buffer takes shape in relation to suspension, uncertainty and hesitation is by looking at how it applies not to people per se, but rather to territory and consequently the people in that territory, regardless of ethnic or political signature. This aligns well with basic humanitarian dogmas in which impartiality is seen as a quintessential value, claim and discourse of humanitarian agencies. Impartiality means that people are aided on the basis of need and not because of ethnicity or nationality, religion, political association, social status, and so on (impartiality does not work well with borders in that sense). As a result, humanitarian idiom suggests that impartiality means that aid agencies are able to determine their own target groups and beneficiaries without being hampered or pushed by warring parties or authorities who seek to influence this. As a rule of thumb, however, authorities seek to influence aid allocation. In Abyei this situation became complicated in a different way precisely because of the essential demographic characteristic of the Abyei conflict. In this sense the evocation of a humanitarian rationale, or rather to be able to be impartial, is what this buffer entails. The SPLM government asked aid agencies to start the repatriation of the displaced with reference to, and implicit confirmation of, Abyei as a logical social and cultural part of the south. However, to stress that it was indeed the logical social and cultural territory of the Dinka Ngok, they forbade the aiding of Misseriya in the very areas where returning Dinka Ngok would/could/should go. Similarly, with the SAF still around in Abyei and the ‘anything-can-happen-every-day’ atmosphere, agencies were confused about how to deal with the situation, but they were vigilant not to be seen as implementers of the governments’ strategic desire to re-populate the area. Various UN and NGO staff explained during interviews that after the initial and hesitant return of Dinka Ngok to Abyei, there were other people in the same area they wanted to reach.63 The Misseriya in the northern part of Abyei were very difficult to access, because although the area was effectively under UNISFA control, with a specific mandate to protect the humanitarian community and its efforts, the South Sudanese authorities had forbidden any humanitarian effort reaching out to the Misseriya population. This dictate from the authorities led to questions about how to deal with the SPLA government’s desire for a repopulation of Abyei and how to go about informing or advising the displaced about conditions on the ground, on when to go, and what to expect for a safe return. Moreover, it sustained a level of mistrust about how the SPLA and its associated organizations such as the South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Committee were monitoring or checking upon UN and NGOs’ intentions. For instance, one NGO worker explained in an interview that they sent local staff away from some of their staff meetings due to fears of surveillance by the authorities.64 There was also mistrust around this very issue among NGOs themselves, because some NGOs were considered more partisan to the SPLA cause, more reckless or vocal in claiming space to implement their programs, or less vigilant in their distancing from government interference. In April 2013 a programme manager of a large international agency explained during an interview in her office in Juba that they ran mobile clinics in the northern part of Abyei in a clandestine manner, meaning targeting Misseriya in areas designated by SPLA as closed for aid.65 (Later, another NGO staff member jokingly referred to similar clandestine operations, i.e. cross-border operations sneaking into forbidden or closed territory, as a form of ‘guerrilla-aid.’) As a result, the South Sudanese government threatened the NGO with expulsion from Abyei. My interviewee had just returned from the region because the NGO was trying to negotiate a continuation of its operations. Instead, the authorities had said that if the NGO was found aiding the Misseriya, it would be expelled from Agok, where it was based, just inside the Abyei area. Other NGO staff in Agok similarly indicated how their suggestions for mobile medical and water projects were forbidden by the State authorities.66 In a similar vein, during several interviews it was brought forward that it was difficult for aid actors to openly serve the non-Dinka Ngok population of Abyei.67 Similarly, Chris Johnson writes how staff from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan were often prohibited from travelling in the northern part of ‘the Box’, making working with Misseriya extremely difficult.68 Instead the UN was seeking NGOs to do it for them; in effect they were seeking to find an ‘implementing’ partner that was willing to take risk, for example by resorting to this clandestine aid delivery or in other ways manoeuvring the strict directives and limitations of the South Sudanese authorities. (My respondent named some NGOs that had a reputation for their willingness to take risks). In this way, humanitarians sought ways to maintain a sense of impartial aid delivery, yet in practice this also meant challenging these authorities’ attempts to prohibit a specific population to settle in Abyei by preventing aid from reaching them. In other words, this very aim for impartiality implied distancing themselves from the bordering policies of the South Sudanese authorities. The ways that were used to include the Misseriya in assistance provision, and the underlying claims of impartiality, are indicative of the humanitarian buffer. Aid functions as a buffer for demographic warfare by ignoring, challenging and negotiating authorities’ directives for selective service delivery. Where this very service delivery is understood as supporting the settling down of people, and implicitly supporting a claim for belonging, humanitarian vocabulary and ideas co-shape an alternative organization of space. It is not straightforward, however; the buffer takes shape by the suspension of specific categorizations and practices in order for the aid actors to either remain operative or to steer free of being manipulated into an all-too-obvious demographic agenda by the conflict parties. However, by suspending all politically sensitive terms in order to remain engaged in the governance of people and territory (even in minimal ways), aid actors confront and even deny demographic politics aimed at enacting a hard border. With this they maintain a buffer between the bordering practices of the warring sides and position humanitarian governance as legitimate practice in the borderland of Abyei. An alternative way of thinking about the deadlock of the Abyei dispute is recognizing the area as a ‘soft-border’. Indeed the border might have to be weak in order to survive at all.69 This would imply that both populations can co-exist as they used to do, without a clear demarcation of territory or territorial control between the two states, or with the protection of international grazing rights for the Misseriya.70 This soft border without definitive demarcation would rather resemble a borderland with multiple claims for governance that are mediated or kept at bay by action that denies exclusionary politics. The humanitarian buffer is a soft border in that sense, sustained by aid actors and UN agencies negotiating access to people. Conclusion This article showed how the humanitarian presence and programs in the disputed border area of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan can be understood as a buffer. It argues that the very conceptualization of, and negotiation with, categories of aid and its targets contribute to maintaining an ambiguous border space governed by a humanitarian rationale. Although at first glance the room for manoeuvre for humanitarian actors is limited, controlled and curtailed, closer scrutiny shows how the very navigation of these limitations leads to a particular form of border governance that can be understood as a humanitarian buffer. This is relevant in terms of the broader spatial effects of aid in protracted humanitarian contexts. Service delivery in protracted aid, conflict and crisis contexts shapes environments in more ways than the outcomes of planned and targeted assistance, such as responses to the plight of the displaced. Rather, through aid a larger politics of belonging is addressed as humanitarian engagement with the complex dynamics of demographic warfare and territorial dispute inevitably becomes embedded in those dynamics, which may resonate in other contexts that experience protracted humanitarian presence and programs. The ways in which aid actors in Abyei manoeuvred around the limitations imposed upon them and negated government directives to target only specific ethnic populations in effect contributed to a suspending of certain humanitarian terms and the creation of new ones, such as ‘the people from Abyei’. What started as a response to a displaced population resulted in claiming and maintaining a particular space for service delivery and protection, but implicitly also resulted in a form of territorial control, a buffer, that may shape the border area of Abyei for many years to come. Footnotes 1. Lisa Smirl, Spaces of aid: How cars, compounds and hotels shape humanitarianism (Zed Books, London, 2015). 2. Interview, International UN Staff, Kwajok, South Sudan, 7 January 2012. 3. See for instance Severine Autesserre, Peaceland: Conflict resolution and the everyday politics of international intervention (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014); David Mosse (ed.), Adventures in aidland: The anthropology of professionals in international development (Berghahn Books, New York, 2011); Dorothea Hilhorst and Bram J. Jansen, ‘Humanitarian space as arena: A perspective on the everyday politics of aid’, Development and Change 41, 6 (2010), pp. 1117–1139. 4. Rens Twijnstra and Dorothea Hilhorst, ‘Blind spots: Domestic entrepreneurship and private-sector development in South Sudan’, in Dorothea Hilhorst, Gemma van der Haar, and Bart Weijs (eds) People, aid and institutions in socio-economic recovery: Facing fragilities (Routledge, London, 2017), pp. 119–137, p. 120. 5. Karen Büscher and Koen Vlassenroot, ‘Humanitarian presence and urban development: New opportunities and contrasts in Goma, DRC’, Disasters 34, S2 (2010), pp. S256–S273; Smirl, Spaces of aid; Lisa Smirl, ‘Building the other, constructing ourselves: Spatial dimensions of international humanitarian response’, International Political Sociology 2 (2008), pp. 236–253. 6. Dianne E. Rocheleau, Philip E. Steinberg, and Patricia A. Benjamin, ‘Environment, development, crisis and crusade: Ukambani, Kenya, 1890–1990’, World Development 23 (1995), pp. 1037–1051. 7. Michael Barnett, Empire of humanity: A history of humanitarianism (Cornell University Press, Ithaka, NY, 2011); Didier Fassin, Humanitarian reason: A moral history of the present (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2012); Alex Veit, Intervention as indirect rule: Civil war and statebuilding in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Campus Verlag, Frankfurt, 2010). 8. Raymond Apthorpe, ‘With Alice in aidland: A seriously satirical allegory’, in David Mosse (ed.), Adventures in aidland (Berghahn Books, New York, 2011), pp. 199–219; Severine Autesserre, Peaceland; Smirl, Spaces of aid. 9. Barnett, Empire of humanity; Berit Bliesemann de Guevara (ed.), Statebuilding and state-formation: The political sociology of intervention (Routledge, New York, 2012); Mark Duffield, Development, security and unending war: Governing the world of peoples (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007). 10. See for instance, Dorothea Hilhorst, Disaster, conflict and society in crisis: Everyday politics of crisis response (Routledge, New York, 2013); Paul Richards, No peace no war: An anthropology of contemporary armed conflicts (James Curry, Oxford, 2005). 11. William Walters, ‘Foucault and frontiers: Notes on the birth of the humanitarian border,’ in Ulrich Bröckling, Susanne Krasmann, and Thomas Lemke (eds), Governmentality: Current issues and future challenges (Routledge, New York, 2011), pp. 138–164. 12. Eyal Weizman, The least of all possible evils: Humanitarian violence from Arendt to Gaza (Verso, London, 2011). 13. Jill M. Williams, ‘From humanitarian exceptionalism to contingent care: Care and enforcement at the humanitarian border,’ Political Geography 47 (2015), pp. 11–20, p. 13. 14. Michel Agier, Managing the undesirables: Refugee camps and humanitarian government (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010); Barnett, Empire of humanity; Alex de Waal, ‘The humanitarians’ tragedy: Escapable and inescapable cruelties’, Disasters 34 (2010), pp. s130–s137. 15. Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted lives, modernity and its outcasts (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2004); Mark Duffield, ‘Development, territories, and people: Consolidating the external sovereign frontier’, Alternatives 32 (2007), pp. 225–246. 16. Lionel Beehner and Gustav Meibauer, ‘The futility of buffer zones in international politics,’ Orbis 60, 2 (2016), pp. 248–265. 17. Michel Agier, Borderlands (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2016). 18. Koen Vlassenroot and Karen Büscher, ‘Borderlands, identity, and urban development: The case of Goma (Democratic Republic of the Congo)’, Urban Studies 50, 15 (2013), pp. 3168–3184. 19. Giorgio Agamben, State of exception (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005). 20. Salman M. A. Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute between north and south Sudan: Why has its resolution proven difficult?’, in John Unruh and Rohdi C. Williams (eds), Land and post-conflict peacebuilding (Earthscan, New York, 2013), pp. 21–63. 21. Hilde F. Johnson, Waging peace in Sudan: The inside story of the negotiations that ended Africa’s longest civil war (Sussex Academic Press, Eastborne, 2011). 22. Douglas H. Johnson, ‘Why Abyei matters: The breaking point of Sudan’s comprehensive peace agreement?’, African Affairs 107 (2008), pp. 1–19. 23. Zoe Cormack discusses how thinking of borders as ‘lines’ contrasts with more local Dinka understandings of borders as points. In a fascinating article, she approaches borders as galaxies, as interrelated places rather than as demarcated territories. Zoe Cormack, ‘Borders are galaxies: Interpreting contestations over local administrative boundaries in South Sudan’, Africa 68, 3 (2016), pp. 504–527. 24. Chris Johnson, ‘Peacemaking and peacekeeping: Reflections from Abyei’, International Peacekeeping 19 (2012), pp. 640–654. In October 2013, a ‘citizens’ referendum’ was held over the status of Abyei, but the government decided not to recognize it, arguably for the same reasons. 25. Johnson, ‘Peacemaking and peacekeeping’. 26. Joshua Craze, ‘Creating facts on the ground: Conflict dynamics in Abyei’ (HSBA Working Paper 26, Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2011); Joshua Craze, ‘Unclear lines: State and non-state actors in Abyei’, in Christopher Vaughan, Mareike Schomerus, and Lotje De Vries (eds), The borderlands of South Sudan: Authority and identity in contemporary and historical perspective (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2013), pp. 57–88; Johnson, ‘Why Abyei matters’; Douglas H. Johnson, When boundaries become borders: The impact of boundary-making in Southern Sudan’s frontier zones (Rift Valley Institute, Nairobi, 2010); Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute’; Roger Winter and John Prendergast, ‘Abyei: Sudan’s Kashmir’ (Enough Strategy paper #11, The Enough Project, 2008). 27. For an interesting account of Abyei around the time of the 2008 ‘invasion’, see the very insightful autobiography of Medicins San Frontiers staff James Maskalyk, Six months in Sudan: A young doctor in a war-torn village (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2009). 28. IRIN / Hannah McNeish, ‘Abyei: An uncertain future’, 27 August 2013, <https://www.unocha.org/story/abyei-uncertain-future> (5 March 2018). 29. Johnson, Waging peace in Sudan. 30. Francis M. Deng, War of visions: Conflict of identities in the Sudan (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1995), p. 244. 31. Johnson, ‘Why Abyei matters’; Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute’. 32. Johan Brosché, ‘Abyei: The Kashmir of Sudan’, New Routes 17, 2 (2012), pp. 26–29; Winter and Prendergast, ‘Abyei: Sudan’s Kashmir’. 33. Interview, International UN Staff, Kwajok, South Sudan, 7 January 2012. 34. IRIN, ‘Abyei’s dangerous impasse’, 10 October 2013, <http://www.irinnews.org/fr/report/98910/briefing-abyei-s-dangerous-impasse> (5 March 2018). 35. Dov Lynch, Engaging Eurasia’s separatist states: Unresolved conflicts and de facto states (USIP Press, Washington, DC, 2004). 36. Behlul Özkan, ‘Who gains from the “no war no peace” situation? A critical analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’, Geopolitics 13 (2008), pp. 572–599. 37. An alternative resolution was voiced at the prolongation of the Security Council mandate for UNISFA in 2015. The South Sudanese ambassador to the UN advocated the establishment of an international protectorate over Abyei, arguing that since both the South Sudanese and the Sudanese governments rejected the idea of a joint administration over the status of the Misseriya as residents, a deadlock prevents any way forward. An administration that would allow security, services and some socio-economic activity, would allow the parties to come together and work out a durable solution in relative cooperation. See ‘South Sudan recommends international protectorate for Abyei’, Sudan Tribune, 14 July 2015, <http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php ?article55710> (5 March 2018). 38. Robert O. Collins, A history of modern Sudan (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008); Alex de Waal, Famine crimes: Politics and the disaster relief industry in Africa (James Currey, Oxford, 1997); Douglas H. Johnson, The root causes of Sudan’s civil wars (James Curry, Oxford, 2007); David Keen, The benefits of famine: A political economy of famine and relief in southwestern Sudan 1983–89 (James Currey, Oxford, 2008); Jok M. Jok, Sudan: Race, religion, and violence (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2007). 39. Johnson, The root causes of Sudan’s civil wars. 40. Douglas H. Johnson, ‘The Heglig oil dispute between Sudan and South Sudan’, Journal of Eastern African Studies 6 (2012), pp. 561–569, p. 565. 41. Collins, A history of modern Sudan, p. 265; Craze, ‘Unclear lines’, p. 88. 42. Johnson, ‘Peacemaking and peacekeeping’, p. 643. 43. Prunier looks at the history of Sudan not as a country but rather as an ‘ongoing imperial conquest’ with the Sudanese ‘state’ as a predatory entity that feeds on exploits in the periphery such as slaves for labour. He writes that ‘the Sudan’, its limits, shape and borders, ‘while very relevant at micro level, were completely vague and imprecise at the macro level’. See Gerard Prunier, ‘Why did South Sudan blow up in December 2013 and what is likely to happen as a result?’, Sudan Studies 51 (2015), pp. 7–22. 44. Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute’, p. 21. 45. Douglas H. Johnson, ‘The road back from Abyei’, 14 January 2011, Rift Valley Institute, <http://riftvalley.net/publication/road-back-abyei#.WEA66X0R9iY> (5 March 2018). 46. Craze, ‘Creating facts on the ground’, p. 24. See also IRIN, ‘Abyei’s dangerous impasse’. 47. Interview, international UN staff, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10 January 2012; Interview, international Embassy staff, Juba, South Sudan, 26 November 2012. 48. Maskalyk, Six months in Sudan, p. 14. 49. Craze, ‘Unclear lines’, p. 75. 50. Salman, ‘The Abyei territorial dispute’, p. 49. 51. Tim Flatman, ‘How yesterday’s agreement on oil could lead to war between the Sudans, not avert it,’ Sudan Tribune, 4 August 2012, <http://www.sudantribune.com/How-yesterday-s-agreement-on-oil,43469> (5 March 2018). 52. Craze, ‘Creating facts on the ground’, 12. 53. It is tempting to view the clashes between militias as forms of tribal warfare, yet as Craze and others show, these groups were effectively instruments of the state – Craze, ‘Creating facts on the ground’. 54. Interview, international UN staff, Kwajok, South Sudan, 7 January 2012. 55. Craze, ‘Creating Facts on the Ground’, p. 41. 56. Interview, international NGO staff, Agok, (South) Sudan, 11 January 2012. 57. Interview, international UN staff, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10 January 2012. 58. These guidelines are referred to as the ‘Guiding principles on internal displacement’, or more colloquially, the ‘Deng principles’, after the Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons Francis M. Deng who wrote the report in 1998. See United Nations Commission on Human Rights, ‘Report of the Representative of the Secretary-General, Mr. Francis M. Deng, submitted pursuant to Commission resolution 1997/39. Addendum: Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’ (UN, Geneva, 1998). Ironically, many people in the field remarked that Deng, who was widely known, is a grandson of the very man who was responsible for the handover of Abyei to Kordofan province in 1905. 59. Interview, two national staff members, South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, Agok, (South) Sudan, 11 January 2012. 60. Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 23 April 2013; Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 22 April 2013. 61. Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 19 April 2013. 62. Interview, International UN staff member, Kwajok, South Sudan, 6 January 2012; Interview, International UN staff member, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10 January 2012; International UN staff member, Juba, South Sudan, 27 November 2012. 63. Interview, International UN staff member, Juba, South Sudan, 27 November 2012; Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 22 April 2013; Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 23 April 2013. 64. Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 22 April 2013. 65. Interview, Country Director, International NGO, Juba, South Sudan, 23 April 2013. 66. Interviews and conversations with a variety of international NGO staff, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10–11 January 2012. 67. Interview, International UN staff member, Kwajok, South Sudan, 6 January, 2012; Interview, International UN staff member, Agok, (South) Sudan, 10 January 2012; Interview, International UN staff member, Juba South Sudan, 27 November 2012. 68. See also Johnson, ‘Peacemaking and peacekeeping’, p. 647. 69. Jérôme Tubiana, ‘Sudan and South Sudan inch towards war’, Foreign Affairs, 8 October, 2013, <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/sudan/2013-10-08/sudan-and-south-sudan-inch-toward-war> (5 March 2018). 70. Roberto Belloni, ‘The birth of South Sudan and the challenges of peacebuilding’, Ethnopolitics 10, 3–4 (2011), pp. 411–429; Johnson, ‘The road back from Abyei’. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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African AffairsOxford University Press

Published: May 8, 2018

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