ABYEI, Sudan – Last week, while the rest of southern Sudan was celebrating the successful start of an independence referendum, this troubled border region was embroiled in bloody clashes between southern security forces and an Arab militia long used as a proxy by the North.
Misseriya fighters, Arab pastoralists heavily armed by Khartoum, had amassed north of the town of Maker Abior. Their objective, according to southern Sudanese officials in Abyei, was to take the territory and increase their bargaining position.
“It is the North that wants the Misseriya to fight the war,” said Kuol Deng Kuol, the paramount chief of the Abyei region. “They want to chase us away from the area. This is their aim.”
The question of Abyei has been the thorniest issue of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan’s 22-year civil war between the North and South. Abyei, a region of dwindling oil reserves and fertile pastureland, was supposed to hold its own referendum on whether to join the South or remain with the North. However, issues of voter eligibility for the nomadic Misseriya have postponed Abyei’s referendum indefinitely.
The Ngok Dinka, an African ethnic group that inhabits Abyei and aligns itself with the South, has threatened to unilaterally join the South, which also sparked last week’s clashes. As the Misseriya advanced, they met heavy resistance from southern police forces in the region.
The fighting lasted for three days. Southern officials claim that they lost 25 men while the Misseriya suffered about 100 casualties. Attempts to reach the Misseriya have so far been unsuccessful.
On January 12, Misseriya and Ngok Dinka leaders met in Kadugli, the capital of the northern state of South Kordofan. They hashed out a ceasefire agreement which included compensation payments for those killed, a corridor for migrating Misseriya, and a safe passage zone for southerners returning from the North.
More talks took place in Kadugli yesterday, this time between northern and southern government officials. While these overtures have so far quelled the violence, Abyei remains tense. Local officials say that the North has rearmed the Misseriya in recent days with as many as 2,000 assault rifles. The North also has 55,000 troops along the border, according to Small Arms Survey.
The South is also preparing for a potential return to violence. Southern troops have mobilized near the town of Agok on the southern boundary of Abyei region, according to U.N. officials. In the sleepy town of Abyei, where cows outnumber vehicles on the dusty streets, civilians are starting to walk around with AK47s.
“The Misseriya are gathering,” Kuol said. “They are assembling in certain places. We should arm ourselves.”
Residents of this town have seen firsthand the effects of clashes on their streets. In 2008, fighting broke out between northern and southern forces, killing hundreds and forcing thousands to flee as most of the buildings burned to the ground. The victims are buried in a mass grave in a grassy field on the outskirts of town.
Some of the most vulnerable residents of Abyei are the returnees who have flocked back to the South from the North in recent months. Last week Misseriya attacked a column of returnees north of Abyei.
On the outskirts of town, about 100 returnee families have camped in an open field. Beds, dressers, pots and pans, suitcases full of clothing – all of their worldly possessions – are neatly stacked in piles under the hot sun like a yard sale.
Mading Machok made the trek from Khartoum with his five children. He has been camping here for nearly two months. On the road, southern soldiers protected the returnees. Now that Machok has reached Abyei, he is thinking about arming himself to defend his family.
“The Misseriya are people of war,” he said. “If it were not for the (southern) army, they would kill us. Now I must protect myself.”