ABYEI, Sudan — On a warm afternoon in mid-October, Sudanese army soldiers stopped a bus bound for this disputed town and ordered everyone off. They forced 27-year-old Bulbul Deng into their office, where five soldiers tied his wrists and legs and whipped him with the butts of their guns.
The soldiers were from Arab tribes loyal to Sudan's northern, Arab-led government, Deng said. Deng is a black African southerner from Abyei, which straddles the north and the semiautonomous south, and where voters in two months are to determine which side to join.
"We know you want to separate from us," Deng recalled the soldiers saying as they beat him and two other southerners. They warned them against taking up arms to defend their vote.
"We can kill you before you kill us," they said.
Here at Sudan's strategic crossroads — where the mostly Arab north meets the African south, near oilfields that both sides lay claim to — mounting ethnic tensions are threatening to plunge the country back into conflict at the most crucial moment in its modern history.
On Jan. 9, the same day that Abyei is supposed to decide its fate, southern Sudan is scheduled to vote in a parallel referendum on whether to secede from the north. The result is expected overwhelmingly to favor independence.
Faced with losing the south, which includes some of East Africa's richest oil deposits, President Omar al Bashir's northern government is trying to delay or destabilize both votes by deploying soldiers and Arab militias near parts of the 1,200-mile border, according to residents, foreign diplomats and independent experts.
In response, southern Sudanese forces also have begun arming southern civilians for self-defense, the Small Arms Survey, an independent, Geneva-based group that tracks weapons flows, reported this week.
The moves have rekindled memories of one of Africa's bloodiest recent chapters: a 22-year civil war between north and south Sudan that killed nearly 2 million people until the United States brokered a peace deal in 2005, which set the stage for January's referenda.
Underscoring U.S. fears of a return to violence, Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, traveled to Sudan over the weekend with an offer for Bashir's government: If it allows the votes to proceed and accepts the results, the United States would remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as next July, Obama administration officials said.
Sudan was placed on the list in 1993, when it briefly harbored Osama bin Laden. But in recent years it has cooperated with U.S. authorities on counterterrorism efforts. The Obama administration had previously said that it would lift the terror designation only if Bashir's government resolved the humanitarian crisis in the western Darfur region — where the International Criminal Court has indicted him on charges of genocide — but Kerry's new proposal makes no such requirements.
Experts believe that the likeliest flashpoint for conflict is Abyei: a fertile, sun-soaked plain roughly twice the size of Rhode Island, which encapsulates Sudan's volatile mixture of Arab nomads, African farmers, oilfields and seemingly limitless weapons. Preparations for Abyei's referendum have stalled over a dispute over voting rights that pits two proud, influential tribes — the northern Misseriya and the southern Ngok Dinka — against one another.
"We still believe that there's time to have an on-time referendum on Abyei, but we recognize that time is of the essence here," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Experts in the region are less optimistic.
"It's increasingly likely that the southern referendum will go ahead but the Abyei one will not," said Claire McEvoy, who directs the Small Arms Survey's Sudan program. "And due to the resulting tensions in and around Abyei, there's a strong possibility of armed conflict."
The Ngok Dinka, farmers and pastoralists who played a leading role in forming the southern rebel movement, consider Abyei their homeland and want it to be joined to southern Sudan. Bashir's National Congress Party argues that the Misseriya, a northern tribe of Arab nomads who graze their cattle here for a few months every winter, should also be given ballots.
Misseriya militias were among the first proxy forces that the north armed during the civil war, and the Small Arms Survey has obtained documents showing that Bashir's government has funneled several hundred assault weapons, rifles and mortars to Misseriya militias since 2005. Many southerners also believe that Misseriya members of the northern army are responsible for the beatings and threats being administered at military checkpoints.
"The Misseriya are a key constituency that (Bashir) wants to keep on board," McEvoy said.
Southern leaders fiercely oppose allowing the Misseriya to vote and accuse the north of sending Arabs to settle in Abyei by providing them with cement and iron sheets to build homes. An Abyei referendum commission hasn't even been formed, partly because northern officials have consistently rejected southern nominees.
"Who votes is clear; the land of the Ngok Dinka is clear," said Pagan Amum, secretary general of the southern ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. "But with all that the NCP has taken the Abyei process hostage," referring to Bashir's political party.
Bashir's government dismissed the allegations and denied reports that it's settling northerners in Abyei.
"From hundreds of years back, the Misseriya have traveled south," said Rabie Abdel Atti, a Sudanese government spokesman. "There is no reason for the government to bring them because this is their homeland."
The two sides have tussled over Abyei for decades, and the 2005 truce left the territory to be jointly administered until a referendum could decide its status — an uneasy arrangement that has fueled more violence.
In 2008, following a confrontation between northern and southern soldiers at a checkpoint, government forces laid waste to Abyei in one of the bloodiest episodes since the war, killing dozens of civilians, torching half the homes and forcing some 60,000 residents to flee to safety.
Some haven't returned. Today, shells of burnt huts and vehicles still line the dirt roadsides of this quiet, thatch-roofed town where many are either too poor or too uncertain about the future to rebuild.
"All indicators say there might be an eruption of conflict at any time," said Rou Manyiel, a veterinarian and civic activist.
The discovery of oil in 1979 magnified Abyei's importance, but last year an international court redrew the territory's boundaries to exclude the largest oilfields in the area — most of which went to the north. As currently drawn, Abyei produces only about 3,000 barrels a day, according to experts.
Still, independent observers say that Bashir's government has dispatched Arab militias to Abyei's oil-producing area, where the fighters openly brag that they'll go to war if they aren't given ballots. Southern Sudanese officials say that the northern army has stationed four battalions — backed by tanks and heavy weapons — around the oilfields.
With only about 700 U.N. peacekeepers posted in Abyei, the military buildup "could make any sort of future conflict deadly," said a Western diplomat in Sudan who wasn't authorized to speak publicly. If the better-equipped northern forces move to seize the oilfields, the diplomat added, "it would be a humanitarian disaster and the international community would have to step in."
Facing an almost certain delay, southern leaders have proposed that Abyei be transferred to the south without a vote in exchange for a generous share of the territory's oil revenues, according to a Western diplomat with knowledge of the discussions.
The north has yet to agree to a deal — and time is running out.
Last month Misseriya herdsmen began their annual migration south, and they're scheduled to enter Abyei within weeks. Typically, they carry light weapons to deter cattle rustlers, but this season southerners fear they might be backed by militias with heavier arsenals.
"Up to this point, we have no clear picture of what they are going to do," said the Ngok Dinka tribal chief in Abyei, Kuol Deng Kuol.
In a long interview at his home, the chief spoke through an interpreter about the history of peaceful relations between the tribes and blamed politicians for stirring up the current crisis. However, when asked what would happen if Misseriya entered the area by force, Kuol abruptly switched to English. His eyes narrowed.
"We will resist that action," he said. "I mean, I will defend myself."
(McClatchy special correspondent Alan Boswell contributed.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2010