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Battle for Abyei could ignite civil war in Sudan

As many as 80,000 people have reportedly fled Abyei since northern Sudanese troops seized the symbolic border town last month.

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Officials and experts point out, however, that the North was already awarded oil-rich areas near Abyei in an international border demarcation ruling.

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"This is not about oil, because the oil fields are far outside Abyei," says Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya. "This is about the historical relationships between the Misseriya Arab nomads and the people of Abyei, the Dinka Ngok, and how they share the land. And how years of war have created mistrust between those communities. The road to peace comes through talking with each other, but nobody trusts the other side."

Abyei is a natural border town, geographically and culturally. The local population of town dwellers are farmers and traders of the Dinka Ngok tribe, many of whom have converted to the Christian faith but others have retained their traditional beliefs.

Yet every year in the dry season, nomadic Misseriya Arab herdsmen from the North pass through Abyei on their way south to the marshlands that are south of the river that the Dinka call Kiir and that the Misseriya call Bahar al-Arab.

This pattern of migration has gone on for centuries and is highly formalized, with Misseriya Arab elders working out the timing of their visits to ensure that their cattle don't trample on Dinka crops on their way down south.

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The war complicated this relationship, with Misseriya siding with their northern Arab brethren, and with the Dinka seeing themselves as the front lines of southern nationalism. Two decades of war left both sides exhausted, a fact that may be the greatest hope that Sudan can avoid a return to war.

"We will not go back to war. It will not happen," said South Sudanese President Salva Kiir last month. "We are committed to peace."

Yet local grievances, and particularly the grievances in Abyei, still have potential for unleashing horrific violence.

Kuol Arop Kuol, a middle-aged man from Abyei, says he cannot be neighbors with the Misseriya ever again. "We will fight until death and even if South Sudan does not want to help us," he says, tears welling up in his eyes, "because a person without land is not a person."

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