TURALEI, Sudan — Southern Sudan's "final walk to freedom" has turned into a bloody stagger.
Decades of armed struggle and civil war in Africa's largest nation will culminate on July 9 with the creation of the world's newest state: the Republic of South Sudan.
But the fragile ceasefire enshrined in Sudan's 2005 North-South peace deal has been pushed to the breaking point over one key issue: the fate of Abyei, Sudan's most contested border zone. Sometimes referred to as "Africa's Jerusalem," Abyei is a Connecticut-sized stretch where two peoples have warily coexisted for centuries — and a place that neither the northern nor the southern governments will give up without a fight.
The northern Sudanese army raised the stakes dramatically when it invaded the strategic town on May 21 — rolling in tanks with air cover and firing mortar rounds into the United Nations peacekeeping base. Tens of thousands of southern Sudanese fled the violent attack and their homes were looted and razed.
This military action was quickly condemned by the United States and other Western governments as a "disproportionate" response to a firefight between northern and southern troops in the Abyei region, believed to have been started by southern forces.
The U.N. Security Council made a strong call for the northern army to withdraw its forces from Abyei's contested borderlands. But the Khartoum government has made it clear that it is not giving up Abyei. According to President Omar al-Bashir's northern government, if the oil-rich South wants to become independent, overwhelmingly approved in the January referendum, then it will have to secede without Abyei, the birthplace of some of the south's most prominent leaders.
"There is no reason Bashir should bow to pressure," admitted the south's foreign minister Deng Alor after a visit to Turalei, a southern town that has seen its population double since some 40,000 Abyei residents sought refuge here after the May 21 attack.
"In the end, we will be forced to use force against them," Alor predicted, saying that he wished there was "some way" to resolve the current crisis peacefully but conceding that the South's former guerilla army may take action to preserve their claims to this emotionally-charged soil.
"There are only two options. (The war in Abyei) is over petrol or borders," said southerner Martha Abiem Deng, who is staying in Turalei.
The Abyei conflict is also about competition for the region's water and land.
The pro-south Ngok Dinka subsistence farmers till the plains of Abyei. They fought for the South in the civil war and suffered heavy casualties. The nomadic Arab Misseriya cattle herders cross the Abyei lands every year and allow their cattle to graze and drink. The Misseriya sided with the North during the civil war.
Abyei was promised its own self-determination referendum in the 2005 peace deal. The vote would have given Abyei residents the chance to decide whether their territory would be administered by the North or the South. But Abyei's referendum did not take place in January due to a dispute over whether or not the nomadic Misseriya are citizens of Abyei.
The North's seizure of Abyei makes it unlikely that the region's future will be decided by a democratic vote.
With less than seven weeks remaining until Sudan splits in two, the two sides are being cajoled back to the negotiating table by Western diplomats and senior African Union and U.N. officials. They are desperate to save the hard-won, internationally brokered 2005 peace deal which could be derailed if a solution is not brokered — and quick.
Satellite images of the devastation wrought by northern forces in Abyei were released May 27 by the Satellite Sentinel Project, a group backed by Hollywood star George Clooney. Burned huts and razed markets are visible in the images, which the Sentinel Project submitted to the International Criminal Court and the U.N. Security Council as evidence that the northern military committed war crimes in their invasion of Abyei.
The widespread damage indicates that it will be difficult to resettle the estimated 80,000 citizens who ran for their lives, many with only the possessions they managed to carry.
"If the war is solved I can go back," said Adau Bol Akon, a weary mother of three who stood for hours in the blazing afternoon sun waiting to receive a sorghum ration from the World Food Program. She was in the rapidly growing settlement of displaced people in the village of Mayen Abun.
The United Nations will not be able to cope with the humanitarian crisis caused by the Abyei flare-up if the tens of thousands of displaced people from Abyei are forced to remain for months in the South due to insecurity at home, warned U.N. humanitarian chief in the South Lise Grande.
Asked if she could live with her former neighbors, Abyei resident Kuei Deng from the Ngok Dinka ethnic group was unequivocal.
"After they kill us and burn us, we don't want to be neighbors again," she said of the Misseriya herders who seasonally migrate south through Abyei's tan and green grasslands to reach the Bahr el Arab River to water their cows.
Both the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya peoples have become pawns in the dangerous stalemate over Abyei, where Sudan's tenuous peace hangs in the balance on the eve of the country's split.
Whether northern and southern leaders will manage to agree on a new deal to keep peace in the Abyei borderland and uphold the rights of the two different groups inhabiting the area remains to be seen. In the meantime, citizens like Deng will struggle to survive with the little or nothing they fled their homes with.