Skip to main content

Bloodshed escalates ahead of independence

By Moni Basu, Jane Ferguson and Faith Karimi, CNN
  • More than 150,000 people have been displaced, the U.N. says
  • Violence has engulfed the region of Abyei and Southern Kordofan state
  • The clashes are over land, oil and power
  • South Sudan is set to gain independence July 9

(CNN) -- People outside Sudan know of Turalei as the birthplace of the late Manute Bol, the towering Dinka man who was known for blocking shots in U.S. basketball.

People in Sudan know it for the shade of a few trees and much suffering. The village was burned to the ground and people massacred in years of fighting between the mostly Arab Muslim north and the animist and Christian south.

Now attention has fallen again on small and dusty Turalei, just a few kilometers south of the contentious border that divides north and south Sudan. It is where tens of thousands of southern Sudanese, mostly Ngok Dinka, are fleeing from fighting that erupted last month in the disputed region of Abyei have sought refuge.

The United Nations said Wednesday that 102,000 people had fled from Abyei.

They camp out under the stars, with little to celebrate just a month before a new country is born.

"The soldiers go to kill people," said Babu Melang, who owned an electrical store in Abyei but left everything behind to flee with his wife and 11 sons. Uncertain about his future, he wanted the world to know about the distress in his homeland.

Southern Sudan is set to become the world's newest nation July 9 after an overwhelming majority voted for independence in January. But prickly issues remain on drawing final borders and dividing oil revenues in Africa's third largest oil producing nation.

Families displaced by Sudan violence

Six months after the peaceful referendum, fighting between Khartoum's armed forces and fighters aligned with the Sudan People's Liberation Army has swept across border regions, including Abyei and southern Kordofan state.

Read about the humanitarian crisis on world's newest border

The two sides fought a bitter and bloody civil war that went on for decades and killed 2 million people. The renewed clashes over land, oil and power, say longtime observers of Sudan, threaten a fragile 2005 peace agreement and plunges the troubled nation closer to another outright war.

Kouider Zerrouk, spokesman for the United Nations Mission in Sudan, said the situation has been deteriorating for the past 10 days and that hardship has been compounded by the fact that aid agencies are experiencing difficulty accessing people in need.

Alarmed, global powers have stepped up calls for both sides to put down their weapons.

"There is no military solution," said President Barack Obama in an audio message recorded Tuesday for the Voice of America broadcasting network.

"The leaders of Sudan and South Sudan must live up to their responsibilities," Obama said. "The government of Sudan must prevent a further escalation of this crisis by ceasing its military actions immediately, including aerial bombardments, forced displacements and campaigns of intimidation."

The United Nations reported heavy and indiscriminate bombardment by Sudanese warplanes during the past week in the Southern Kordofan cities of of Kadugli and Kauda. It said at least 11 bombs were dropped Wednesday on an airfield near a U.N. camp.

"The recent developments raise the unsettling question: Will Sudan suffer another internal conflict similar perhaps to Darfur?" asked diplomat John Campbell on his Council on Foreign Relations blog Tuesday.

Sudan's warring sides came to the table over the weekend at an African Union summit in Ethiopia. Campbell mentioned reports of Ethiopian troops being sent into Southern Kordofan to enhance a U.N. peacekeeping force but no such agreement has been formally announced.

A U.S. State Department official who traveled with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the meeting in Addis Ababa, told reporters on the way back to Washington that a lack of trust would be difficult to overcome.

"If you listen to one side, the other side violated all the protocols and they had instigated the violence," the official said. "And then you listen to the other side, and its no, the other guys violated all the protocols and instigated the violence. And what it goes to is that these are two entities that really don't trust each other."

Yet both sides must live as neighbors after July 9 as two sovereign nations.

Analysts said the stakes are high not just for the people who live in these oil-rich lands, but for the region's stability -- no one wants to see another protracted war. They are high, too, for the United States and other world powers which have invested so much in Sudan's peace process.

"The United States has invested heavily in peaceful, independent south Sudan," said John Prendergast, founder of the humanitarian Enough project. "The unrecognized resumption of war between north and south due to Khartoum's attacks in Abyei and Southern Kordofan is going to reverse years of work by the United States in support of peace."


The vote in January excluded the people of Abyei because of disagreement over voter eligibility.

Everyone knew then that it would be a flash point. Prendergast, along with actor George Clooney, initiated the Satellite Sentinel Project, which combined satellite images with field reports to provide an early warning system for violence. The idea was that it would deter bloodshed.

Prendergast was especially concerned about Abyei, a region the size of Connecticut that is homeland to the Ngok Dinka peoples and also to northern Misseriya nomads and other pastoral people who migrate south to Abyei in the dry season in search of grazing grounds.

"There is a real belief among the Dinka leadership that they cannot leave Abyei behind," Prendergast said. Think of it, he said, as the U.S. Army's "no soldier left behind" creed.

On the other hand, Khartoum is reluctant to abandon the Misseriya without a secure way to meet their livelihood objectives.

"Its such an emotional hot-button issue for both sides," Prendergast said. "One spark can ignite a war. Abyei is a big thorn in the side of the relationship between north and south."

Satellite images released last month by the Satellite Sentinel Project showed that homes in Abyei were razed, proof, said Prendergast, of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

Jonathan Temin of the United States Institute of Peace said Khartoum attacked Abyei to push the Dinkas out, to alter the population and stack the decks in its favor in an eventual decision on the fate of Abyei.

Or the north may be trying to swallow up more territory to make it look like a concession, if they have to give up Abyei after the south gains formal independence, Temin said.

"It's very hard to decipher what motivates Khartoum to do this," Temin said. "It's deeply concerning and it brings Sudan closer to civil war than it has been in the past few years."

Southern Kordofan

Fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and fighters of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) erupted June 5 near Kadugli, the capital of oil-rich Southern Kordofan state. The United Nations has also reported violence in neighboring Blue Nile and Unity states.

After July 9, Southern Kordofan will be a part of the North. The latest fighting followed disagreement over security arrangements and also the re-election of Ahmed Haroun as governor of the state. Haroun is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.

The people from the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan are northerners who aligned with the south's rebel movement during the civil war.

As independence drew near, Khartoum viewed the 30,000 or so fighters in South Kordofan who are loyal to the Sudan People's Liberation Movement as a threat and launched an aggressive offensive to disarm them, Temin said.

The fighting spread quickly to other towns and villages. Human Rights Watch said "extensive artillery shelling and aerial bombardment of civilian areas by SAF forces have resulted in several civilian deaths and destruction of property."

The monitoring group said both sides have "engaged in widespread abuses including extrajudicial killings, arrests, and looting and destruction of civilian property such as private homes and churches."

The United Nations said 63,000 people have been forced from their homes.

A Kadugli resident told Human Rights Watch that the city was empty, the shops shuttered. "No one knows who is fighting whom, heavy shelling is all over the place, but I managed to get my family outside the town. As I speak now I am leaving my house. This place is finished; the city will never be the same again."

Pawns in a power play

Far away from the fighting, in Orlando, Florida, musician James Aguek, like other south Sudanese who fled the civil war, follows events in his native Abyei. His father, a SPLM commander, was killed during the war in the 1980s. Now, some of his relatives are missing.

"This was the year we were supposed to breathe out and say, 'we are finally at peace now,'" said Aguek, who fled Sudan at the height of the war in 2000. "This was supposed to be our break from the years of war ... we were supposed to finally have our own country where no one bothers us."

But peace seems elusive at this moment. And the world, Aguek lamented, is focused on developments in Syria, Libya, Yemen, but not Sudan.

"Millions of people have been killed in these genocides," he said. "I don't know how much more killing it will take for the world to pay attention to our people."

"I feel like we've been let down," he said. "We're not asking for much. If we can get a no-fly zone to stop them from raining bombs on us, we can take care of ourselves after that."

Maybe his relatives made it out safely from Abyei. Maybe they are with the thousands in Turalei.

There, the roads are silent, save for a few U.N. vehicles, as fuel shortages have become chronic.

The bustling market has little or no food for sale. A few women sold aged onions and one roadside restaurant had a bag of bread loaves for sale at extortionate rates.

The people in Turalei wait under a sweltering sun, pawns in a power play who are bearing the cost of a nation about to be born.