After missing their harvest and seeking shelter in impoverished South Sudan, tens of thousands of refugees from the disputed Abyei region have been given food and agriculture aid by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to help them survive the year. 

The aid included seeds such as sesame, groundnuts and sorghum as well as tools for filling the soil and some food as seed protection that should ensure adequate harvest in August, the ICRC said.

“The families left everything behind when they fled last year, including their crops, which had been their main source of livelihood,” said Katia De Keukeleire, the head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Wau., a former slave-trading station that today serves as an administrative center for the new country.

”Their arrival has placed a burden on host communities whose food resources were already limited. With the rains approaching, it will soon become very difficult to reach this area. The aid we distributed, which comes in advance of the planting season, restores a level of self-sufficiency to these families who can now produce food to eat or to sell. They cannot afford to lose another harvest.”

Since clashes broke out last year in Abyei, a border area claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan, over 110,000 people were estimated to have fled, abandoning their homes and belongings. Many ended up in remote villages around Agok town in South Sudan, where they were taken in by the local communities. Most have yet to return home and that has put further pressure on food supplies.

“Families fled Abyei town with nothing, leaving their crops behind. Villagers here took people in as best they could and shared what little they had with them. This distribution helps us to help ourselves,” said Mawien Malith, deputy chief of Abatok village near Agok, which saw its population double with the influx of displaced people

“We can now plant when the rains arrive and the tools will serve us for years to come,” Malith said.

The potential food crisis is taking place amid talks between Sudan and South Sudan to settle several major issues, including the demarcation of their common border and the long-term fate of oil-rich Abyei. The talks have been marked by tension and a lack of progress.  For now, seeds and tools may be the best hope for Abyei’s former residents to rebuild their lives

It also comes amid a reported deadline for nationals of each other country to return. An estimated half a million ethnic South Sudan are required to either leave Sudan or formalize their status in the country.

African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki held talks late last week over the crisis with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his Sudanese counterpart, Omar Al-Bashir. Mbeki said he has received assurances from the leaders of both countries that the nationals of each  will be given good treatment in the other country.

Still, skirmishes erupted two weeks ago in the region bordering Sudan and South Sudan in the most serious unrest since Juba's independence have prompted international fears of a return to full-blown conflict. The United Nations Security Council has expressed alarm over the military clashes for threatening to precipitate a resumption of conflict between the two countries, worsen the humanitarian situation and lead to further civilian casualties.

Reading out a press statement issued by the 15-member body, United Kingdom Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant called on the governments of Sudan and South Sudan “to exercise maximum restraint and sustain purposeful dialogue” aimed at peacefully addressing the outstanding issues currently fueling the mistrust between them.

Reacting to the press statement, Sudanese Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman stressed that when his country’s security is threatened inside its territory by rebel movements “we have every right to use all possible means to repel and put an end to those attacks.”

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