When northern Sudanese troops seized the disputed border town of Abyei last month, it was a sign that the fragile six-year-old peace between north and south Sudan was teetering. Some called it the first shots of Sudan’s next civil war, following the two-decade-long war that killed an estimated two million people.
Like the better known conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region, the north-south civil war began as a result of local disputes, a feeling by many southerners that the Islamist-dominated northern government was neglecting its duties in the south. And between the two sides Abyei rose as a symbolic prize — a Kashmir or a Jerusalem — that must be fought for and defended at all costs.
Now Abyei could pull the divided nation back into war just weeks before south Sudan officially secedes, on July 9. “It’s probably the worst-case scenario,” said a United Nations humanitarian worker not authorised to speak on record.
The UN estimates that at least 30 000 have fled Abyei and surrounding villages as a result of recent fighting. According to some local officials, that number is closer to 80 000.
Speaking during a recent trip to Khartoum, the capital of north Sudan, representatives of the UN Security Council called on the north to withdraw troops from Abyei. But the regime of President Omar al-Bashir — who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur — is digging in its heels. “Abyei belongs to north Sudan,” he said emphatically, days after his troops seized Abyei.
“[Bashir] is doing this because he’s looking at the oil we have and our productive land,” said Kuei Deng, who fled Abyei with her daughter, daughter-in-law and several grandchildren. “That’s why he’s killing us — to make us leave the land. We believe we are southerners. We are Christians. That’s why they are doing this.” But officials and experts point out that the north was already awarded oil-rich areas near Abyei in an international border demarcation ruling.
“This is not about oil, because the oil fields are far outside Abyei,” said Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya. “This is about the historical relationships between the Misseriya Arab nomads and the people of Abyei, the Dinka Ngok, and how they share the land. And how years of war have created mistrust between those communities.
“The road to peace comes through talking to each other, but nobody trusts the other side.”
Abyei is a natural border town, geographically and culturally. The local population of town dwellers consist of farmers and traders of the Dinka Ngok tribe, many of whom have converted to Christianity; but others have retained their traditional beliefs.
Yet every year in the dry season nomadic Misseriya Arab herdsmen from the north pass through Abyei on their way to the marshlands south of the river, which the Dinka call Kiir and the Misseriya call Bahar al-Arab.
This pattern of migration has gone on for centuries and is highly formalised, with Misseriya Arab elders working out the timing of their visits to ensure that their cattle do not trample on Dinka crops on their way down south.
The war complicated this relationship, with Misseriya siding with their northern Arab brethren and the Dinka seeing themselves as the front lines of southern nationalism. Two decades of war left both sides exhausted, a fact that may be the greatest hope that Sudan can avoid a return to war.
“We will not go back to war. It will not happen,” said south Sudanese President Salva Kiir last month. “We are committed to peace.” But local grievances, and particularly the grievances in Abyei, still have the potential to unleash horrific violence.
Kuol Arop Kuol, a middle-aged man from Abyei, says he cannot be neighbours with the Misseriya ever again. “We will fight until death and even if south Sudan does not want to help us,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes, “because a person without land is not a person.” —