This week’s attacks underscore how the disputed, oil-rich border town of Abyei has been used as a lightning rod by political leaders in both northern Sudan and soon-to-be independent South Sudan.
A series of attacks that began Sunday in Abyei, Sudan’s hottest north-south flashpoint border town, have left more than 100 dead, again raising the prospect of a less-than-amicable breakup of Africa’s largest country when South Sudan officially secedes this July.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan confirmed Thursday that approximately 300 women and children had fled the disputed, oil-rich border town of Abyei since Wednesday night. These residents headed south toward safety, fearing further militia attacks like one on Wednesday some 10 miles north of Abyei that killed more than 30 pro-southern police and Ngok Dinka men who took up arms to defend the village of Maker Abyior.
The Wednesday attack came on the heels of a series of attacks earlier in the week on villages north of the town of Abyei. The spokesman of the southern Sudanese army said Wednesday that more than 70 people were killed in these attacks.
The UN mission said that their staff in Abyei witnessed a mass burial on Wednesday night of 33 fighters from the attacks, many of them wearing police uniforms.
The latest violence is not an unfamiliar experience for the people of Abyei, nor is it surprising. The unresolved fate of this contested border region – which has been the subject of high-level political negotiations, protracted international court hearings, and intense global interest – has stoked tensions on the ground between the two groups that are forced to share and coexist on land that they both consider to be their own.
While the Arab cattle-herding Misseriya believe they should be allowed to graze uninterrupted through this fertile and oil-producing land, the “resident,” non-Arab Ngok Dinka people – many of whom traditionally have been farmers – fear their land will be usurped if their territory does not join the southern half of Sudan when it declares independence in July.
Both governments are keen to attribute blame for the violence to the other. And with the long history of Abyei being used as a proxy during the two north-south civil wars that have ravaged the country since independence in 1956, it is likely that Khartoum and Juba will continue their finger-pointing instead of reaching an agreement on the future status of the region.
The top government official in Abyei insists that the well-armed forces that attacked Maker Abyior on Wednesday were not merely Misseriya herders backed by Khartoum.
“These are not militias, these are Sudanese Armed Forces,” says Deng Arop Kuol, referring to the northern military. “These are government forces."
The UN mission has not yet visited the site of all the clashes this week, and the southern allegations of northern military involvement in the attacks have not been independently verified.
“Indeed, we can expect more if the issue is not resolved in a just manner,” she added, noting that the denial of the right of the people of Abyei to determine their future in a referendum is “likely to lead to continued conflict in the area.”
The 2005 north-south peace deal promised Abyei its own referendum that was to be held simultaneously with South Sudan’s independence vote. This referendum was not held because of disputes between the south’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Khartoum-based National Congress Party.
On the eve of the south’s independence vote in early January, clashes erupted in several of the same villages that experienced violence this week. As with the latest round of fighting, the uncertain future of the people of Abyei seemed linked to the January violence.
The bloodshed in Abyei comes as the leaders of north and south are participating in high-level talks on a host of issues related to post-July relations between north and south.
On the table this week in the Ethiopian town of Debre Zeit are wealth-sharing arrangements – namely how Sudan’s oil sector will be managed after southern secession – and resolution of the impasse over demarcation of the country’s disputed, 1,300-mile north-south border, which includes Abyei and will form the sovereign dividing line before the two regions after the south separates.
Insiders to the talks speculated before they got underway on Tuesday that these negotiations will be key to determining if and how relations between the two sides have changed since the South's landslide vote to secede was announced on Feb. 7.