09/23/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Achieving Resiliency and Peace in Abyei


Historians have well documented the changing characteristics of war over the past century, from those fought across borders to, increasingly, those fought within borders. There is a general perception that portrays these civil conflicts as battles for power, fought by equals. Yet in the case of Sudan, war is most often fought between government supported soldiers and civilian populations.

Sudan has experienced civil wars for all but 11 years since gaining independence in 1956, as violent conflict has arisen around perceived inequities among citizens and their identity -- whether race, religion, culture or custom. This history of civil conflict, as well as government-led political, social and economic marginalization, have reinforced a culture of violence and eroded trust in governmental institutions. Indeed, violent oppression and genocidal acts are a hallmark of this regime since coming to power in 1989, and which continue today absent any accountability. While South Sudan, long a victim of civil war, gained its independence in 2011 after a 50-year struggle, the Government of Sudan has continued its oppressive actions in Darfur and the areas that now border the new country of South Sudan: Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

In a prior piece, I wrote about the political situation in Abyei and the need for action on a long-promised referendum to allow the people of Abyei to own their future. But there is a paradox of sorts in asking people brutalized by decades of war to simply reconcile differences peacefully and move on to the urgent priorities of their continued survival, especially when issues of identity, place and purpose have been so completely hardened by violence.

How can people make efforts towards peace when root causes have not been addressed? How can people begin to reconstruct their families and their livelihoods when they are in limbo between Sudan and South Sudan, not knowing on which side of the recently redrawn border their land will belong?

Recently, an outstanding research report, Stabilizing Abyei: Trauma and the Economic Challenges of Peace, was released, that highlights the relationship between traumatized people and their outlook and capacity for reconciliation and peace. Working directly with indigenous Ngok Dinka communities, the researchers recommend that "assisting individuals in gaining a sense of control over their security and well being can serve to reduce the level of trauma." The study underscored that without greater psychological and emotional capacity, it is difficult to manage the path towards restoration of healthy social relationships and livelihoods required for stability and lasting peace. Similarly, without justice for those who committed atrocities, reconciliation and lasting peace become all the more difficult to achieve.

While this report was made specifically for Abyei, it holds much promise, not only for Sudan's and South Sudan's people who have survived in conflict settings for far too long, but also for other areas around the world whose people suffer from violence and conflict. The recommendations are universal: security, sustainable economy, stable governance and the rule of law, and cultivating a sense of social well-being that focuses on issues related to gender, education, civil society, youth and addressing trauma. The report suggests that trauma interventions should utilize local communal practices for healing and restoring the social fabric of society, and that investment in living and economic conditions of the communities will help promote greater resilience to the impact of trauma.

I believe it is this type of research, along with these recommendations, that can help the international community find healthier, more effective ways to help resolve conflict and to support the voices calling for democratic transformation over violent responses to oppression. The stabilization of Abyei and other areas impacted by widespread and long lasting violence requires a transformative experience by the affected people. Such an experience cannot be prescribed nor forced upon them. All people must be engaged in peace building, whether labeled as government officials, traditional elders, civil society, women's participation, youth groups or community-based organizations. All must be aligned towards healing, reconciliation and creating conditions for security so that gains in health, education and economic development improve and last. This is the end to which the international community must commit its efforts.

Diplomacy and peace deals are necessary to end wars, but signed documents do not guarantee lasting peace. Without the deliberate and intensive attention to restoration of individuals and communities' sense of identity -- attained by returning home and regaining a sense of place, purpose and meaning through re-establishment of property rights, livelihoods and security for current and future generations -- peace will be elusive.

Foreign policy, humanitarian aid and development organizations must work to elevate and coordinate the recommendations laid out in "Stabilizing Abyei." I believe that it is only with a shared alignment in this vision of healing and progress that we will see increased resiliency and decreases in returns to violent conflict. How wonderful a thought to be able to offer children of violent conflict a promise that they will be okay, and they will not grow up to fight in a war that was never really resolved.