Five days after Sudanese forces attacked the border town of Abyei, at least 40,000 residents had fled. In that time, according to aid workers, some traveled up to 80 miles south, seeking sanctuary from what could be the opening assault in a renewed civil war.
Workers with a Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America outpost near Aweil said a small group of 10 arrived from Abyei, though one child had died along the way. The rainy season has begun, making travel difficult. And besides chasing Abyei residents out of their homes and off their land just at the end of growing season, Northern forces have blocked shipments of food and fuel south. Market stalls around Aweil are empty, prices are soaring, and even aid groups are discovering the difficulty of helping the newly displaced. "Feeding people is likely to get very bad very soon," one worker told me.
The Khartoum government's Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF) launched the attack on Abyei May 21 using helicopter gunships, tanks, and bombers. Observers could not number the casualties, but nearly a week after the assault, flames rising above homes and businesses set afire still blazed. The SAF quickly occupied the town and surrounding villages, and despite international condemnation the government has vowed not to leave.
"Abyei is Sudanese land, a Northern land [and] we will not withdraw from it," vowed Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir on May 24.
Abyei's status was not decided in a January referendum when South Sudanese overwhelmingly voted to secede from the North under terms of a 2005 peace agreement. Formal independence is set for July 9. The North has hotly contested the Connecticut-sized district, which straddles the borders of what will become two countries and at one time was responsible for one-fourth of Sudan's crude oil production.
Southerners say any dispute over the territory is a recent one. "It is clearly Dinka Ngok land and used to be part of the South," said John Ashworth, adviser to the Sudan Ecumenical Forum. But the Khartoum government has forcibly depopulated Abyei of Dinkas and moved in Arab tribes known as Misseriya. Ashworth says they "are seasonal nomads, not residents."
That kind of ethnic cleansing by proxy forces is similar to tactics used during the conflict in nearby Darfur-which has killed over 400,000 Sudanese and displaced nearly 3 million. "Those forces allow them to maintain deniability while fomenting conflict at the same time," said Dan Sullivan, senior policy analyst for the Save Darfur Coalition.
Satellite imagery showed weeks of military buildup around Abyei of SAF tanks, helicopters, and military personnel. The invasion was a "premeditated and well-planned" operation, according to the Satellite Sentinel Project.
Along with worry that Khartoum and its SAF military personnel will now attempt to expand the land grab to other border areas, particularly those with oil reserves, experts blame the United States for poor follow-through on the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The Bush administration helped to supervise its drafting, and in particular U.S. diplomats drafted the Abyei Protocol. It called for a separate referendum in which residents could determine the district's status, but was scuttled by Khartoum. "The Obama administration contributed hugely to the climate leading up to this," charged Roger Winter, former special representative to the State Department for Sudan and longtime head of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. When Northern forces attacked Abyei in 2008-similar to last month's incursion-the United States did not respond.
Sullivan believes that the United States may punish Khartoum for the invasion: Sudan was due to come off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and to win debt relief before the South's July independence. But Winter fears post-invasion rhetoric may be too little too late: "This is a land grab of huge impact that will destabilize the area and perhaps the new South Sudan state," he told me. "The situation has, and I do not exaggerate, genocidal potential."