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In war-torn Sudan, Abyei could be a flashpoint

Border region between North and South has oil and rival ethnic groups.

Sudan Abyei region
A girl whose family just returned from Khartoum washes dishes next to her belongings in Abyei on Jan. 12, 2011. (Trevor Snapp/AFP/Getty Images)

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.