What exactly is happening in this picture?

Last month, the U.N. released the above photograph as a way to underscore its commitment to protecting Abyei, Sudan, in the wake of a brutal May 20 attack on the town by Sudanese army forces and pro-government militia — an attack which locally-stationed U.N. peacekeepers waited out in their barracks, under orders from their officers ...

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552620_110621_Abyei2.jpg
Zambian peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) patrol streets lined with looted items awaiting collection in Abyei, the main town of the disputed Abyei area on the border of Sudan and newly independent South Sudan. In a statement yesterday, the United Nations strongly condemned the burning and looting currently being perpetrated by armed elements in the area, following the seizure of Abyei town by Sudanese Government troops on 20 March.

Last month, the U.N. released the above photograph as a way to underscore its commitment to protecting Abyei, Sudan, in the wake of a brutal May 20 attack on the town by Sudanese army forces and pro-government militia -- an attack which locally-stationed U.N. peacekeepers waited out in their barracks, under orders from their officers to avoid confronting the looters and arsonists destroying the town. The photo shows the Zambians on May 24, again patrolling the streets under the U.N. flag, presumably protecting the populace.

Last month, the U.N. released the above photograph as a way to underscore its commitment to protecting Abyei, Sudan, in the wake of a brutal May 20 attack on the town by Sudanese army forces and pro-government militia — an attack which locally-stationed U.N. peacekeepers waited out in their barracks, under orders from their officers to avoid confronting the looters and arsonists destroying the town. The photo shows the Zambians on May 24, again patrolling the streets under the U.N. flag, presumably protecting the populace.

But a closer look at the photo reveals a more ambiguous and disturbing reality. In the background, a couple of men are seen walking off with household furniture, including bed frames, mattresses, plastic chairs and other items. They could be local residents taking flight despite the renewed U.N. presence; or looters, plundering the local inhabitants’ possessions right under the U.N.’s nose. In any case, the photo seems to subtly subvert the U.N. diplomatic intentions.

Bec Hamilton, a journalist who viewed Abyei three weeks ago, noted on Twitter that she watched people “systematically looting goods like these from dwellings 3 [weeks] ago.” But she said that in the absence of more context, it is hard to tell what is happening in the photo.

The U.N. meanwhile, has brought in a contingent of Indian reinforcements to shore up the Zambian peacekeepers until a better equipped and trained Ethiopian peacekeeping force arrives in Abyei. They will then keep whatever peace there is left to keep, and hopefully encourage the thousands of locals who fled the town during the attack to return home.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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