In a tin-roof hospital in the Nasir region of South Sudan, Nyachiew Gatbel nurses her baby and a bullet wound. The 22-year-old mother is flanked by other young women recovering from an attack on their nearby village of Torkech in June. "They attacked us at night, coming from all sides when we were sleeping," Gatbel told the BBC. "They fired the guns everywhere, and they shot me in the leg."
Gatbel's story is one grim slice of the inter-tribal violence gripping South Sudan: According to the United Nations, more people have died violently in South Sudan than in the country's western region of Darfur in recent months. UN officials say the fighting over land and cattle has killed hundreds of people, displaced thousands, and razed scores of villages this year alone.
The violence comes at a precarious moment: With less than 18 months left in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended a 20-year civil war between the north and south, officials from both regions are still quarreling over the terms. How the two sides manage key disputes in coming weeks-while juggling internal conflicts of their own-will have crucial implications for the peace of Africa's largest nation.
Leaders from both sides played nice at a July summit in Washington aimed at helping the regions negotiate. Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, presided over the meetings as part of the Obama administration's efforts to carve out its own policy toward the nation. (Administration officials have expressed conflicting opinions about relations with Sudan, and Gration has been friendlier with Sudan's ruthless dictator, President Omar al-Bashir, than other key officials in the past.)
Both delegations agreed to one major concession: They said they would accept the looming ruling of a Hague-based arbitration court over the boundaries of the country's north-south borders. Border debates have proved central to the ongoing conflict since the nation's largest oil fields lie in the south. Southern officials say the Khartoum-based government in the north hasn't sufficiently shared the vast oil revenues gained from fields largely in the south. Officials in Khartoum dispute north-south boundaries, hoping to keep the lucrative oil fields in their control.
Gration hailed the leaders' agreement to accept the arbitration ruling-due as early as mid-July-but Sudan observers expressed skepticism. Roger Winter, former special representative to the State Department for Sudan, said the Khartoum-based government regularly makes agreements it doesn't keep: "They agree because it buys them time."
Bashir proves Winter's point: The ruler just celebrated his 20th year in power and has managed to defy world leaders for decades. Though his government signed the CPA, they've failed to keep many of the terms, and the International Criminal Court has signed a warrant for Bashir's arrest for crimes against humanity in Darfur. Bashir responded to the warrant by expelling aid groups that provide half the region's food supply. A few weeks later, Gration visited Khartoum, saying he came "with my hands open."
The Khartoum government is trying to leverage the goodwill: Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, a top Sudanese official, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking that the United States remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and begin a process to lift sanctions. Clinton's office didn't immediately reply.
If Bashir openly derides the Hague-based criminal court, he likely won't long abide the decision of a Hague-based arbitration court that may rule against him. Though both sides say they don't want to return to war, violence remains a sharp possibility, and not just over oil: Nationwide elections scheduled for April could bring conflict, especially if the south believes the contests aren't fair. And a referendum on southern secession in 2011 could bring trouble if the south votes for independence and takes its rich natural resources with it.
All the more reason for the United States to form policy that would help stabilize the south in case of another war, especially as the south struggles with violence within its own borders, and development remains stagnant. Avoiding war is crucial for the whole of central Africa, says Winter: "If war comes again, it will make Darfur look like a tea party."