Disputed Border Area Could Reignite War In Sudan

A U.N. peacekeeper stands guard in Abyei last month.

A U.N. peacekeeper stands guard in Abyei last month. The Sudanese town on the faultline between north and south is slowly recovering from violence two years ago and is bracing for more bloodshed as a referendum looms on independence for Southern Sudan. Guillaume Lavalee/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Guillaume Lavalee/AFP/Getty Images

The people of Southern Sudan vote next month on whether to split Africa's largest country and create one of their own. Whether things turns bloody — as they often have in Sudan — may hinge on what happens in Abyei, a disputed region along the border between the north and south.

Abyei, an oil-producing county, is supposed to choose whether to join the south in a vote to be held simultaneously with Southern Sudan's Jan. 9 referendum on independence. But it appears Abyei's planned January vote will either be postponed or even canceled.

And some people in Abyei are threatening to secede on their own and risk war.

"If there is a war, we're ready to start," says Chol Deng Chol, a merchant. "It's our homeland, where can we go?"

Map of Sudan

As Sudan appears headed for a split, Abyei may be the country's most dangerous fault line. Abyei is home to some of the same disputes that drove Sudan's two-decade civil war — Africa's longest. There is competition for resources, including pasture land and oil.

To reduce friction, Abyei's boundaries were redrawn last year, giving most of the oil to the north. But ethnic tensions persist.

Abyei is in Sudan's Arab, mostly Muslim north, yet its major ethnic group — the Ngok Dinka — are African. They are loyal to the south and practice Christianity or Animism.

When northern Sudan's soldiers attacked Abyei two years ago, tens of thousands of Dinka fled south to safety. Most of the town has been rebuilt, but you can still see signs of the violence. On the edge of Abyei lie burned-out cars and buses, rusting amid weeds.

"The north doesn't want the people here, they need the resources," says Chol, who sells cooking oil and sugar in Abyei town's new market.

Chol Deng Chol is head of the trader’s association in the Abyei market.

Chol Deng Chol is head of the trader’s association in the Abyei market. He says Sudanese troops looted his store two years ago and burned the market, including the rusting bus in the background. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt/NPR

Sudan's army burned the old market and most of the rest of Abyei town in May 2008. Chol lost more than $100,000 in goods to the fire and looting. He says the message was clear: The government in Khartoum wants to run him and his fellow Dinka out of Abyei.

But Abyei residents don't just blame the government troops for the destruction. They also say the Misseriya — Arab nomads from the north — looted the town as well. Chol says the Misseriya arrived in Abyei two days after the army and joined in the action.

"The Misseriya took everything we had," Chol says. "In the market, in our homes, gold, cows."

The Misseriya pass through Abyei each year to graze their cattle. And now they are pressing their own claims to the area.

Sadig Babo Nimir, a member of the Misseriya's ruling family, says the nomads worry if Abyei becomes part of Southern Sudan, the Misseriya will be cut off from pasture land.

"This is a death sentence," says Nimir, who wears a turban and a flowing white tunic called a jalabiya. "This is the only source of their livelihood. They depend on cows."

Huts like these, called tukels, were burned by Sudanese government soldiers in an attack in Abyei.

Mud and thatch huts like these, called tukels, were burned by Sudanese government soldiers in an attack in Abyei in 2008. Abyei is in Sudan's Arab, mostly Muslim north, yet its major ethnic group -- the Ngok Dinka -- are African and loyal to the south. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt/NPR

Nimir says if there ever is a referendum — planning is woefully behind — the Misseriya should have a vote.

"A referendum without the Misseriya will never take place under any circumstances," says Nimir. "If it comes to the worst, we will fight it by force, because this is our land."

A range war could be bloody. The Misseriya have fought on behalf of the Sudanese Army in the past and they typically carry AK-47s.

But officials from north and south are trying to come up with a political solution that would guarantee grazing rights and allow the people of Abyei to choose their fate.

Remote Abyei town is a sprawl of mud huts with conical thatched roofs called tukels. There is no electricity, water or sewer service.

On the outskirts of town sits a small village called Kalom. A group of women greets visitors with dancing and a traditional song, but beneath the warm welcome people are uneasy.

Kalom is still recovering from the fighting two years ago. The United Nation's World Food Program distributes food to those who still cannot feed themselves.

Mangith Alei lost his sorghum crop and thatched hut to  troops two years ago.

Mangith Alei lost his sorghum crop and thatched hut to Sudanese government troops two years ago. "When you're cultivating, you don't feel secure, because you're afraid you'll have to run again," he says. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt/NPR

Mangith Alei says the Misseriya burned his sorghum crop and he's reluctant to replant everything he lost.

"My crop is a lot smaller now," says Alei, who like many Dinka is very tall, probably 6-feet, 5-inches.  "When you're cultivating, you don't feel secure, because you're afraid you'll have to run again."

Margherita Coco, who works for the World Food Program, says the organization is positioning 1,600 metric tons of emergency food in case Abyei erupts in conflict next month. Most of the food won't be stored here, but in a neighboring state to avoid what happened in 2008.

"The whole warehouse was burned down," Coco recalls, "and we had to leave quite quickly."

People in Abyei are hoping history does not repeat itself. They hope leaders from the north and south can fashion some sort of compromise that ensures the rights of those who share Abyei and keep peace in a country that has mostly known war.

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