ABYEI, Sudan — As Southern Sudanese went to vote earlier this month in a referendum that's likely to establish Africa's newest nation, hundreds of militiamen from the Arab north launched an attack near the town of Abyei that killed dozens of combatants from the African south.
If anyone had known the full details about the three-day clash in this enclave on the future north-south border, it might have brought the celebration to a halt. But this small region, which straddles much of Sudan's oil wealth and was excluded from the main referendum, is way off the beaten path — and no one wanted to talk.
Even 10 days later, the clash remained clouded by conflicting accounts and the refusal of either side to tell the full story. The Arab group that's behind the attack said southern forces provoked the fighting. International officials who have close knowledge of the situation say instead that the Arab Misseriya militia appears to have planned the attack carefully, with the aim of starting a wider conflagration.
"We were very close to complete catastrophe," said one senior Western diplomat in Sudan, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The fighting in the Abyei region — along with the relative silence that greeted it — serves as a stark reminder of how precarious peace remains in Africa's largest country after 50 years of war that left more than 2 million dead.
Although official results of the southern referendum won't be released until next month, limited results from around the region show that the tally for secession most likely will be above 95 percent. International observers have declared that the referendum was free and fair. Legally, full independence for Southern Sudan should follow on July 9.
Abyei was supposed to vote last week, too, in its own referendum on which side to join. Yet this vote never occurred.
The site of the clash was just outside the nondescript mud-hut village of Maker Abyior, eight miles north of the administrative center, Abyei town, which southerners control and inhabit.
Montoc Agok walked for two hours across the savanna between Maker Abyior and Abyei town on Jan. 9, the day the balloting began, but he never got to vote.
"We heard the sound of big guns, not just rifles. The police were pushed back, so we fled," said Agok, who's 50.
The fighting was intense. According to a hospital doctor who treated the wounded later that day, combatants sustained shrapnel and other explosion-induced wounds. Southern forces said they'd lost 26 men in the fighting, and the northern militia says it lost 15. U.N. officials said that at least 20 people were killed, and possibly many more.
It was the last and heaviest of three days of fighting in the middle of an area that's only 4,000 square miles but is stuck in a conflict driven by local and national factors that some fear could be toxic enough to revert Sudan singlehandedly into an old war.
The apparent target of the Arab militia was a joint north-south military base that lies between the village and the administrative center. The attack seemed designed to turn the two military camps against each other — as occurred during 2008 clashes that left more than 100 dead — and then proceed to Abyei town, according to a U.N. official who wasn't authorized to speak on the record and thus asked not to be identified.
The result probably would have been explosive. "Then the SPLA would have been forced to come in," the U.N. official said, speaking of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, Southern Sudan's former rebel military. Full military clashes between the old wartime foes very likely would have ensued, possibly even disrupting the southern referendum. "That was probably the plan," the official said.
Instead, specially trained military police commandos who'd reinforced a security post just outside the village eventually repulsed the Arab militia, which numbered in the hundreds.
In some ways, the events are another example of the remarkable ability the Sudanese have displayed to avert renewed conflict throughout the period of troubled peace created by a U.S.-brokered 2005 accord that ended the last civil war. But the area could explode again.
Abyei remains under effective siege by northern militias, which have blocked the road to bus traffic. Food prices are rising amid dwindling stocks. The U.N. peacekeeping mission has a base in Abyei but refuses to escort the buses south, saying that such action falls outside its mandate.
Meanwhile, a dangerous no man's area in the middle is expanding as southern security forces have locked down a cordon around the town.
This explosive land remains Sudan's biggest wild card as the country's political elites prepare for its divorce. Supposed to be ruled jointly by north and south, half of Abyei is controlled de facto by the south, the other half by the north.
Abyei is mostly inhabited by the Ngok Dinka, who are ethnically southerners, but the land sits just above the historic border between Sudan's north and south. With the country splitting, the Ngok Dinka want to join their southern kin, whom they joined with in decades of armed rebellion against the north.
Under the 2005 peace deal, they're supposed to have that right. But neither Sudan's northern rulers, keen to hang on to the oil-producing territory, nor the Misseriya nomads, Arab cattle herders to the north who graze their cattle here during the year's dry months, are eager to lose the territory across a new sovereign border.
After the Misseriya demanded the right to vote in the referendum as well, amassing militias to the north and blocking demarcation of the border in defiance of a 2008 boundary arbitration ruling at The Hague, Netherlands, the referendum was never organized.
Time is the enemy here. With no referendum set, the Ngok Dinka say they'll unilaterally annex their area to the south before the new nation's borders are formally recognized.
Their plan was to declare the annexation last week — the reason behind the reason behind the Misseriya attack, some think — but a high-level visit to Abyei town by senior southern politicians and the top U.N. official in Sudan on Jan. 11 convinced the Ngok Dinka leadership to postpone the declaration, amid southern fears that the fallout could disrupt the referendum. Now that voting has ended, Ngok Dinka leaders say they could declare before the end of the month.
Another dispute could come to the fore even sooner. This is the dry season, and the Misseriya cattle herders are waiting just north of the front lines to move their herds south to the river in southern Abyei. On Jan. 12, just days after the fighting, leaders from the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities met in intense negotiations that agreed the Misseriya herders could start entering Ngok Dinka land after partial compensation is paid for killings last year.
For the leader of the Ngok Dinka, it was a compromise from an earlier vow to block the migration until the political dispute over Abyei's future was resolved.
"We decided to leave aside the politics for the politicians," Kuol Deng Kuol, the paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka, told McClatchy in an interview. "We will try to let our people understand the situation."
He could face opposition, if not outright defiance. "If they come back, we will fight them," 57-year old Akonon Agok said of the Arab nomads in the village of Mabok, where the Misseriya herders traditionally pass. "Every year we open our homes for them, and every year they loot and kill as they leave."
On the other side, the militant rhetoric beats just as loudly. "We will do grazing by any means, whether by negotiation or by force. For us it is a way of life," said Sadig Babo Nimir, a member of the Misseriya leading family, speaking by phone from Khartoum, Sudan's capital.
For now, leaders north and south seem to be working to defuse the situation. In a high-profile meeting Monday, top military officials on both sides agreed to a number of security measures in Abyei designed to lower tensions.
In the meantime, expecting more violence, an old frustration grows among a war-weary community. More than 26,000 Ngok Dinka, most of whom had been displaced during the war, have returned home from the north in recent months. They came back to partake in the final liberation of their homeland, but now most of them huddle under trees in Sudan's most volatile battleground, the very situation that most of them fled years ago.
They express no regrets, just a resigned anger at a peace process that's left them behind. "We are not afraid," said 55-year-old Mary Guem, who returned in December more than 40 years after she fled with her family to the north as a young girl.
"We have put our lives in the hands of God," she said, sitting on her bed under the blazing sun.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)
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