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  • The Indian Battalion serving with UNISFA works with the local community to treat cattle through one of their regular veterinary camps in Abyei. UN Photo
    The Indian Battalion serving with UNISFA works with the local community to treat cattle through one of their regular veterinary camps in Abyei. UN Photo

Veterinarian peacekeepers from India help protect peace by caring for cows in Abyei

Their horns are sharp as knives. Despite their peaceful outlook, these cows could cause serious injuries. The beasts sense the presence of the veterinarian team and start stomping the muddy ground, shifting their heavy bodies away from the peacekeepers and their trainees who have set camp in the middle of the herd where a cow requires assistance. 28-year-old Majdi skilfully grabs the injured cow by the horns and wrestles her to the ground where Indian peacekeepers crouch with their needles in hand to inject well-needed antibiotics.

This time it is nothing serious, but in 2022 a suspected epidemic decimated the cattle population in Abyei, a disputed territory wedged between Sudan and South Sudan. Eighty percent of all cattle had already died by the time Lieutenant Colonel Gurpreet Singh Bali assumed his functions as a veterinary detachment commander of the Indian battalion with the United Nations Peacekeeping mission UNISFA back in December that year. He is one of the more than 590 Indian peacekeepers serving there.

“We had to earn the trust of the communities but we eventually managed to separate the sick animals from the healthy ones and vaccinate the whole of Abyei’s animals in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Ghanaian battalion,” he said. “But it was too late for many of them. “The conditions were terrible,” he added.

Lieutenant Colonel Gurpreet Singh Bali treats the cattle belonging to the Misseriya community during one of their veterinary camps in northern Abyei. UN Photo

It was a tragedy for communities in the region as communities are highly dependent on livestock for food, milk and social engagements such as marriages where cattle is traded among families. Cows are even used to pay for school fees. 

“Our whole community lost hope when the cows got sick. If anyone wants to buy something from the market, whether they need clothes for the children, food or anything, they trade with animals. The cattle are their lifeline.” The Ngok Dinka Paramount Chief Bulabek Deng Kol said and credited the Indian battalion for the survival of the remaining cows.

At the time, Lieutenant Colonel Bali was one of the few trained veterinarians in Abyei. He rang the alert on the deadly disease, implemented a triage system and saved hundreds of lives, bovine and human alike.

“There is only a nascent kind of structure for animal services here in Abyei but they need much more. They don’t even have medicine so we work with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), with communities and other troop-contributing countries (TCCs) try to fill in the gaps. It’s the only way.” Lieutenant Colonel Bali said while watching over one of his young trainees as he wrestled down yet another cow in need of treatment. 

Besides caring for thousands of animals, Lieutenant Colonel Bali also trains younger community members to ensure skills remain once he’s gone and communities can prevent and respond to any diseases. Majdi has benefitted from this skills transfer. Today, at age 28, he has just graduated as a veterinarian and he’s the sole resource in this community with over 2,000 cows under his care. 

“We are really few veterinarians for way too many animals. We couldn’t do it without the peacekeepers. We don’t have medicine and we don’t have testing capacity when there’s a disease spreading here and some are endemic,” Majdi said. 

Cows are not only precious to sustain families but also to sustain peace. 

“If there is a conflict between members of the community or communities, they can pay compensation by offering cows. They are traded in exchange for forgiveness and peace”, Deng Goch, Director General of Agriculture, Animal Resources and Fisheries said.

Conflicts in neighbouring Sudan and South Sudan are affecting access to medication for the bovines as roads become dangerous and flights are cancelled. Abyei also grapples with internal tensions, many of them connected to livestock. In early 2023, one of the deadliest cattle rustling took place, leaving 18 people dead. In response, UNISFA, UN agencies and international organisations joined forces to broker a peace deal between the two communities and collectively address pre-migration challenges and prevent tensions between farmers, displaced communities, the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya. Since then, only occasional incidents have been reported. 

“Without peace I can’t do my job, the cows will be gone. Most of the cattle have been taken so this is the last camp we have. We used to have four of them but we lost a lot to the raids,” Majdi, the young veterinarian added. 


The UN Peacekeeping Mission UNISFA was established in Abyei in 2011 in response to the renewed violence, escalating tensions, and population displacement in the Abyei region as Southern Sudan was preparing to formally declare its independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011. Over 3,000 peacekeepers currently serve with the mission.