Nine months after Sudan split into two nations in search of a peace brokered by the United States, it is now clear that the two sides are at war.
Diplomats discussing the armed conflict talk of skirmishes and dustups, but a visit to this border region shows that what is taking place here is no accidental exchange of fire by troops confused about where the border lies. Instead, what’s happening is a headlong mobilization involving not just thousands of Sudan’s and South Sudan’s best forces and heaviest equipment, but heavily armed rebels from the distant Darfur region fighting alongside the South Sudanese troops.
Whether an emergency peace plan could curb the escalation remains to be seen. But neither side is talking to the other, and the mood here is weighted with the sober intensity of wartime.
On Sunday evening in a looted Sudanese garrison in Heglig, South Sudanese generals drew military positions in the sand with a curtain rod. They were expecting an imminent counteroffensive by Sudanese troops. Soldiers stood by, twitching, on edge.
Suddenly, missiles rained in, and artillery pounded the earth behind.
"We are under attack," yelled South Sudan’s Maj. Gen. Mangar Buong, the commander. Troops scurried, trucks spun out.
The international community has condemned the fighting and has called on South Sudan to withdraw. But its leader, Salva Kiir, has publicly refused to do so.
The fighting started last week on the road to Heglig, an oil outpost with a military base that had long been controlled by Sudan. The two sides faced off at a de facto border point marked now only by the start of a miles-long trail north of rotting corpses and feasting birds.
Who fired first is unclear, but from there, the fight spread northward to Heglig, which fell to the South Sudanese army a week ago.
Heglig now is a reeking graveyard of carnage. Two destroyed tanks sit on the road. Scraps cover the red dirt and debris floats in the dry wind. Battered signs proclaiming the Chinese-led oil consortium that worked here poke above heaps of loot from its offices _ chairs, file cabinets, TVs, refrigerators _ waiting to be hauled south as bounty.
Meanwhile, hundreds of South Sudanese soldiers stream up the road in large trucks to join the fight as Sudanese war planes hunt from above, pummeling the ground with bombs and rockets.
The South Sudanese army is using the captured Sudanese garrison in Heglig as a forward operating base. Soldiers pick through piles of clothes and half-finished meals while peeking at the sky in fear of the Sudanese planes above.
Stores of weapons were left behind, including crates of anti-personnel mines, banned under a treaty Sudan ratified in 2003.
The conflict is not new. Ever since British colonialism handed power to Sudan’s northern, Arab elite in the 1950s, war between the two sides has been an off-and-on affair.
But that war was supposed to have ended with the creation last year of South Sudan as an independent nation _ at least, that was the hope of the U.S. and Western allies who brokered the 2005 peace deal that gave South Sudan the right to split away.
Instead, the splitting of Sudan now appears only to have turned an internal war into an international one, with much more firepower on all sides.
The new dimensions of this old conflict are starkly evident on the front lines. The South Sudanese army is no longer the guerrilla force of old, but sports its own tanks, anti-aircraft weapons and sovereign land.
It’s joined by rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement group, who swooped in from Darfur laden with vehicles and heavy weapons, some likely from Libya.
The Darfur rebels have been fighting against the Sudanese government for years and have joined this new front with gusto. Their trucks are scrawled in Arabic and mounted with heavy weaponry, including one large anti-aircraft gun.
"JEM oyee!" yelled one fighter in a green tank top and dirtied white turban as he pulled to a stop, beer can in one hand and steering wheel in the other. A machine gun was mounted on the passenger seat, in front of his boyish sidekick.
The alliance with the Darfur group raises questions about South Sudan’s plan and how far it intends to press the battle.
Brig. Gen. Makal Kuol Deng, in command of Heglig, said he did not know what the end goal was. "If they (headquarters) say go ahead, we go ahead. If they say stop, we stop," he said.
Other South Sudanese military officials say that they have no intention of pushing far north, into what they consider proper Sudanese territory, and only want to defend their border.
But the presence of the JEM rebels from Darfur, who are seeking to overthrow the government of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, suggests otherwise. JEM and a weaker Darfur rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Army, have joined up with South Sudan-aligned rebels in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. Together, the rebel alliance calls itself the Sudan Revolutionary Force.
The Sudanese army is better armed, but it seems drawn thin and disillusioned. In the Nuba Mountains, the rebels have been making surprising gains against the government forces. Here, it appears that the Sudanese army withdrew suddenly without a spirited fight.
There is no foreseeable endgame. The one hope for peace is that neither side can afford war for long. Landlocked South Sudan shut down its oil production in January, unable to reach an export deal with Sudan. Now, with Heglig’s oilfields shut down as well, Sudan, too, is facing a currency crisis.
Logic and sober analysis, however, overlook the depth of bitterness felt by both sides and the comfort with which a population that barely knows what peacetime means accepts violence and destruction.
Careening down the road back southward, the South Sudanese soldiers pointed at the corpses outside, dozens of Sudanese soldiers who’d died in battle. Stripped of boots and valuables, denied a Muslim burial, they decay out in the open. The air reeks of death. "Jellaba," the South Sudanese say, using derisive slang.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)