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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.

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.”