ABYEI, Sudan — On Sunday morning the congregation filled every bench and spilled out into the sandy courtyard. Boys were dressed as little gentlemen in ill-fitting miniature suits, young girls wore innocently vampish miniskirts and heels, all were in their Sunday best.
Music and drums drew the people in. There was no bell because in 2008, when Abyei was all but flattened by fighting, the northern Sudan army looted the church. For good measure they also fired a rocket at the statue of Mary above the church door blowing it to pieces.
“So we rebuilt Mary,” said the Catholic priest, Peter Suleiman, “bigger.” Behind him the church’s canary yellow facade is still, nearly three years later, pocked with bullet holes.
The Abyei region straddles the border between northern and southern Sudan, a country that is drawing ever closer to splitting in two as votes are counted in a referendum held last week on whether the South will secede.
That vote took place peacefully and with a singleness of mind and spirit that is rare in this ethnically fractured country. But in Abyei, the people did not vote and, fearing they might be left behind as the world’s newest state is born, they are threatening to declare their allegiance to the South unilaterally.
Such a move would be resisted by the Khartoum government, its army and militias. If Sudan's civil war is going to resume, it will start here in Abyei.
As the South went to the polls, three days of clashes between southern police and northern militants just outside the town of Abyei killed about 75 people in exactly the kind of local skirmish that can trigger wider fighting.
“It is possible that this dispute here can restart the war,” said Kuol Deng Kuol, paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka people.
According to a 2005 peace deal that ended 22-years of civil war, the people of Abyei were to have voted in a parallel referendum on Jan. 9 to decide whether to join the North or the South.
Disputes over who was eligible to vote — the southern tribe of Ngok Dinka people or the northern nomadic Misseriya Arabs who come here seasonally to graze their cattle — meant the referendum in Abyei was postponed, indefinitely, leaving the Ngok Dinka feeling disappointed, abandoned and angry.
“The right to participate in the referendum has been denied to our people by President Omar al-Bashir,” said Rou Manyiel, a community leader. “But self-determination is not only through referendum, it can be done through declaration.”
Kuol, the soft-spoken chief, said that his people felt “deep sorrow” at being “left out” of the South’s march toward independence.
At this time of year it is difficult to see why this land is worth fighting for. During the rainy season Abyei is cool and green but now, in the dry season, wind kicks up swirling dust devils that twist across a dry, scorched wasteland through which a river flows offering only a little respite.
The town itself is dotted with little round houses made of mud and grass and crumbling stone buildings. There is a market of plastic-covered wooden lean-tos and the flat land is crisscrossed with rutted mud tracks burned hard by the sun. There are power lines but no electricity; trenches have been dug but no water pipes laid.
A fortified United Nations base dominates the town, sandbags and razor wire round the perimeter, humming generators keeping the floodlights burning through the night. Here the United Nations is not popular. The Misseriya resent them, block their patrols and order them back to town. The Ngok Dinka think they are cowards for fleeing in helicopters as the northern army razed Abyei in 2008.
The dispute over Abyei is about the land and the oil that lies beneath it, and other parts of the border region.
Sitting beneath the late afternoon shade of a straw-roofed shelter, dozens of Ngok Dinka, elders discussed their situation. “All of us speak Dinka, we are marked with Dinka scars,” said Kuol Deng Maluak, pointing to the parallel lines that marked their foreheads. “The North does not want us, they want our land.”
“We as citizens were about to unilaterally declare our allegiance to the south on Jan. 9,” said the chief, Kuol. Entreaties from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement persuaded the Ngok Dinka to wait, but for how long? “Together, we will do the right thing at the right time,” said Kuol.
Manyiel was more precise. “We cannot wait for the result of southern Sudan … so certainly it will be before July 9,” he said referring to the date scheduled for independence.
“This might take the country back to war because we are Dinka, many of them [in the south] are also Dinka, we fought with them and they have a moral debt to pay to us,” said Manyiel.
Both North and South are accused of massing troops on the fringes of Abyei, preparing for a fight. But it need not come to that, some say.
“Politics have messed up our relations with the Ngok Dinka,” said Mogadum Hamid, a Misseriya tribal leader. “Historically we came here as neighbors, peacefully, but those who are political took our issues and use them to benefit themselves. The problem is at the political level, not between the people."
Kuol, the Ngok Dinka chief, said the trouble was because of meddling from Khartoum, which used the Misseriya as a janjaweed-style proxy force during the civil war.
“War is not inevitable, if people are reasonable, the solution is there,” he added.
Outside his scarred church, Suleiman shook his head sadly and echoed that hope. “I have experienced war,” he said. “If there is any way to stop war we should accept.”