KADUGLI, Sudan — In the heart of Sudan, there's a land of rolling hills and lush plains where Arabia meets Africa, where one brother prays in a church and the other in a mosque, where peace hangs in the balance and war lurks in the shadows, and, over the next few weeks, where the future fates of two new nations might collide.
Welcome to the Nuba Mountains, Sudan's little-known crucible of roaming militias, oil fields and a bloody history that many fear could soon be repeated.
During Sudan's long civil war, this area saw some of the most brutal Darfur-style violence, as government-armed Arab militias ravaged their centuries-old Nuba neighbors, who in turn increasingly joined an armed rebellion raging in the nation's south.
Now, little-discussed elections in the state of South Kordofan, which begin Monday, are driving the bottlenecked tensions of a testy decade-long cease-fire to a dramatic head.
"We are ready for fighting. Everyone is ready for fighting. Is that something new? We have been fighting for 20 years," Ibrahim Mohammed Balandia, the speaker of the state legislature and a member of the north's ruling National Congress Party, told McClatchy.
Both sides remain heavily militarized, with tens of thousands of regular and irregular forces each.
On Thursday, The Carter Center, an Atlanta-based initiative of former President Jimmy Carter, warned of violence in the elections.
"The widespread presence of armed forces and militia throughout the state has resulted in acts of intimidation and increased citizen fears over the forthcoming election," the center said in a statement.
Already, the old violence has reared its head. On April 13, an Arab militia — probably armed by Sudan's northern government — attacked the hometown of Abdelaziz al Hilu, the state's deputy governor and the gubernatorial candidate of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the southern rebel movement that will govern the new nation of Southern Sudan.
The attack on Al Faid village killed up to 29 people, including women and children, and burned more than 300 huts to the ground.
Hilu blames his gubernatorial rival, Ahmed Haroun, the state's current northern-appointed governor, of orchestrating the attack. In 2007, the International Criminal Court indicted Haroun on charges of war crimes in Darfur.
"His intention is to repeat the same attempts of genocide" as in Darfur, Hilu said in an interview with McClatchy on the campaign trail in the town of Dalami. Hilu accused his challenger of being "notorious" for seeking to "wipe out the Africans."
Haroun's ruling party, the National Congress Party, denies any link to the attack.
"It is easy politically to accuse another person. But how can you justify this accusation?" Balandia said. "It is tribal; you cannot say it was political. There are roots for the conflict."
Sudan's pending split into two new countries in July seemingly might have resolved decades of north-south conflict, but the south's secession has decidedly made a precarious situation here worse.
For years this area has leaned heavily on its southern allies to protect its interests. When the south peels away in two months, the African Nuba Mountains will be left behind in the Arab-dominated north.
It will face a much harsher political landscape, as northern President Omar al Bashir's party seeks to tighten its control over what remains of Sudan.
The state elections in South Kordofan, which encompasses the Nuba Mountains, have been relatively ignored by an international community fatigued of intervening in Sudan's myriad crises; first, a decades-long civil war and its devastating humanitarian situation, then the crisis in Darfur and now the breakup of the country.
Although the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, is flying in for the elections, the U.S. — which took the lead in brokering the 2002 cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains — has shown little engagement, as Washington focuses its diplomatic capital on normalizing battered relations with Sudan's northern regime and bolstering the nascent government in the south.
This trade-off approach could prove a mistake, as few places have the potential to unravel Sudan's frail stability and shaky north-south peace more quickly than renewed conflict in South Kordofan, at Sudan's geographical and symbolic center.
The Nuba-dominated Sudan People's Liberation Movement views these elections as do-or-die. Whichever party wins gets to lead negotiations with Sudan's central government on the state's rights, a vague process the peace deal called the "popular consultation."
For the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, those negotiations would be for greater autonomy, secular laws and a slice of the state's oil revenue — tangible fruits of its armed struggle. But the ruling party would rather see the process fizzle.
Electorally, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement may have a stronger ideological base, but it faces a far better resourced opponent with the powerful advantages of incumbency.
And the party fears that regardless of its strength on Election Day, the odds already have been turned against it.
According to Aly Verjee, a senior researcher at the United Kingdom-based Rift Valley Institute, the census, constituency demarcation and voter registration processes have all very likely tipped the balance in favor of the ruling party.
"Rigging is something that happens not just on Election Day," said Verjee, who views Hilu as the clear underdog in the race.
If the polls really are a foregone conclusion, it bodes poorly for peace. Without a victory in the elections, the Nuba will lose control of their one chance to gain the concessions they fought for. Many will consider the peace deal effectively dead, and the armed struggle incomplete.
That's where things get even more complicated. Hilu's army of tens of thousands of Nuba soldiers, the backbone of his political leverage, remains in Southern Sudan, on the payroll of the southern army.
Which is why, if local conflict breaks out, it could immediately drag in the rest of the country.
Khartoum, in the north, wants the Nuba troops disarmed and returned to the north as civilians. Juba, in the south, has refused, but it says it won't let them return home armed until a political solution is finalized. Hilu wants them to return as a recognized security force and says anyone who tries to block their homecoming "is not a wise person."
He says he won't take his people back to war. But the choice isn't entirely his, and Hilu's party will face severe internal discontent if poll results aren't in its favor.
For the people here, many of whom feel betrayed by a seceding Southern Sudan and let down by an absent international community, the polls hold both promises of hope and premonitions of peril.
They're tired of war, but they won't accept iron-fisted rule under the Arabist and Islamist polices of the government, which declared a jihad against their land in the 1990s.
"War is not preferred. We want dialogue," 30-year-old Carlo Karaka said in the market of Kauda, a small outpost that served as the Sudan People's Liberation Movement rebel base during the war. "But if the NCP wishes to go back to war, then there is no option."
And if these rock-strewn hills nestled in Sudan's center explode, so might the rest of Sudan.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)
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