SOUTH OF ABYEI, Sudan—"I heard a plane way up high and then 'Doom!', the sound of a bomb hitting the ground," explained Mary Ajiang Kur, 37. "My neighbor called out: 'The Arabs are coming!'" recalled Kur, who said she grabbed her children and hid in the bushes.
Soon after, men arrived in her village, outside of Abyei town, the heart of a fertile, 4,000-square-mile area that straddles the provisional border between north and south Sudan.
"They came first on motorbikes and then [Toyota] Landcruisers with guns mounted on them," said Kur. She remembers many of the men were wearing uniforms but said some were wearing civilian clothes. "They started firing towards us. Bullets were landing beside us. We saw people being killed."
Now, Abyei town is eerily quiet. An occasional round of gunfire and the whirr of a United Nations helicopter are the only sounds in a town that is usually populated by around 40,000 people. On the weekend of May 21, according to a U.N. report, the civilian population fled when northern Sudanese troops assaulted the town with heavy weapons, including airplanes and tanks. Khartoum's forces now control the town, although there is still a significant contingent of U.N. peacekeepers stationed there. No reliable estimate of the number of killed and wounded has been produced.
As seen from the air on Sunday, May 29, smoke rose from the remnants of several dwellings. Buildings made of concrete seemed to be largely intact. But the charred foundations of many tukuls, the grass-topped, mudbrick homes that most Abyei residents inhabit, were clearly visible. Among the smoldering remains, blackened bed frames and chairs could be seen. Clothes and other household belongings were strewn outside several homes.
On the main road in the center of town, a handful of men in army uniforms appeared to be organizing the movement of household goods onto a pale mustard-colored pickup truck. Others in civilian clothing were seen carrying goods from houses into large piles on the side of the road. The U.N. reported widespread burning and looting in the days after the attack.
Both the Sudanese government, based in the mainly Arab and Muslim north, and the South Sudan government, based in the largely Christian and animist south, claim ownership over Abyei, a fertile borderland. A 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between north and south failed to reach a final agreement on its status. The region may not be as economically important as it once was: At the time of the 2005 deal, Abyei accounted for one-quarter of Sudan's total oil production; since then, a court ruling has placed the most lucrative fields outside of Abyei's boundaries, and its one remaining oil field is in decline.
The region, however, has acquired a symbolic value that has made negotiations over the area particularly challenging. "Abyei has unfortunately assumed a political character and complexity far removed from the fundamental dispute on the ground," says Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group.