Terror in Abyei

The first interviews with fleeing residents of this Sudanese border town make one thing clear: the regime in Khartoum knows exactly what it is doing.

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.

In lieu of an agreement over the region's status, the people of Abyei were supposed to decide for themselves in a referendum in January. It never took place. The South Sudan government argued that only the Ngok Dinka, a settled, non-Arab group who are ethnically and politically southern, should get to vote. Khartoum wanted the Misseriya, a nomadic Arab group who travel through the Abyei region to graze their cattle in the dry season, to also vote, believing that this would secure Abyei for the north. The dispute was being addressed through political negotiations until the north seized Abyei outright, sending thousands of Ngok Dinka fleeing south in terror.

Many of those displaced described a pattern of invasion: after aerial bombardment, armed men advanced in pairs on motorbikes, "one was driving, the other was shooting," followed by larger groups in Landcruisers.

Some of the displaced said they were fired at from the air as they tried to flee. "There were planes shooting at us," said Nyek Atar, 17. Others expressed guilt that they had to leave behind those who were too old to run. All said that they left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

Those who hid within Abyei town report seeing tanks rolling into the center on Saturday, May 21. One woman says she saw a tank drive over the bodies of three young men she knew who had been shot earlier by troops in a Landcruiser.

Many who fled say that after realizing they were under attack and running for some distance, they hid in the bushes until it was dark. What followed were days on the move. Aid workers stationed in the neighboring town of Agok, about 20 miles southwest of Abyei, say that this was where many thousands first congregated. But on May 22, rumors circulated that northern troops were going to advance on Agok. The displaced took off again, heading further south.

In the panic to escape, many became separated from their families.

In Turalei, one of the main collecting points in South Sudan, people are desperately seeking news of missing relatives. Aluel Nyoul, who is unsure of her age but looks to be about 10, clung tightly to the hand of her cousin. "I started running with my parents, but we lost each other on the way," said Nyuol. "I don't know where they are. I don't know where anyone is. Just my cousin here."

Many sustained injuries as they ran. Mothers tell of how difficult it was for their young children on a journey of up to five days with no food or water. Sunday Taban Lobaya, interviewed in the South Sudan town of Wau, said her two-year-old son died of dehydration on the way. "I had to just bury him and keep going with my other children," said Lobaya, who is seven months pregnant.

At first glance, it all sounds and looks awfully reminiscent of Darfur, the western region where the Sudanese government and its allied janjaweed militia committed atrocities against non-Arab residents that the U.S. government in 2004 said were tantamount to genocide. One should be cautious about rushing to draw the Darfur analogy, however. The testimony of the (admittedly moderate) sample of Abyei's displaced population I have spoken with in recent days suggests there may be important differences between the two situations.

None of the Ngok Dinka people I interviewed reported being subjected to any of the racial slurs that characterized the janjaweed attacks on people in Darfur. To my knowledge, no sexual violence has yet been reported, although this certainly does not mean there was none. And death from direct violence does not seem to be a primary feature in the eyewitness accounts to date, though this may be only because so many people I met with started to run the moment they heard bombs falling in the distance.

Despite many years of violent tension with the Misseriya, the involvement of Misseriya militia in the attacks, and the general sense that "the Arabs" did this, many displaced seem to be clear that the primary culprit is the Sudanese government.

"The Misseriya do not have Antonovs" one woman told me, referring to the planes used in the initial assault. The same message was echoed by South Sudanese politician and Abyei native Luka Biong. "It was good that it was not the Misseriya who launched the attack on Abyei. It was clearly the NCP [Sudan's ruling party]. It shows the Misseriya have just been used by them."

This is the second time the people of Abyei have been forced to run for their lives in just three years. In 2008, Abyei was razed by the Sudanese government and its allied militia. The violence followed a dispute between northern and southern soldiers stationed in the town under a joint administration set up by the 2005 peace agreement.

"In 2008 everything was burnt and destroyed," explained Aker Chol Deng, 20, who was displaced again by the recent violence. Deng says that her family had just finished rebuilding their home this year. Asked if she would return to Abyei again, Deng answered quickly, and with some frustration at the question. "It is home." Then, placing her hand on the leg she injured as she ran, she added, "But only if it is safe."

Trevor Snapp/AFP/Getty Images


The Center Cannot Hold

Burma's ethnic groups are quietly preparing for war against the central government.

LAIZA, Burma — Standing over a freshly dug trench, Maj. Aung Myat points to a group of soldiers from the Burmese national army in the near distance on the Sino-Burma border. "They really want our 'Prostitute Fort.'" he says, using the front-line post's local nickname, inspired by the decadent pastimes of the British soldiers stationed there during World War II.

The mood is calm at the front-line base on the Sino-Burma border, but all the soldiers fear the looming offensive. Aung Myat, still staring at the fort, declares, "It would be the first base in their path to attacking our headquarters."

Myat and his soldiers have good reason to be afraid. In November of last year, his forces, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), rejected a proposal from Burma's military government to become a "Border Guard Force." It was a nice euphemism for the junta's attempt to gain more control over the border regions. And mostly, it seemed a convenient way to co-opt a 4,000-man ethnic army to lay down their weapons and pledge allegiance to the central government.

The KIA wasn't interested. "We will never agree to their proposal," Lama Gum Hpan, the secretary of the Kachin Independence Council (KIC), which de facto governs the region, said this March. "If we accept [the Burmese government's offer], the whole struggle by the people for our Kachin land will be in vain," Lama Gum Hpan says.

Formed in 1961, the KIA's raison d'être was to defend their region from Burmese troops and create an independent Kachin state. Previously, in 1949, the Kachin and other ethnic groups in the region signed an agreement under the watchful eye of the departing British colonials to form a federal union. However, when the ethnic leaders felt the Burmese government was not respecting the agreement, many took up arms and engaged in grueling guerrilla wars with the Burmese army in the jungle.

Most of these ethnic groups tired of the fight and signed cease-fire agreements in the early 1990s, but three decades later, some of these ethnic armies, like the KIA, still fight. Over the last year, the Kachins' predicament -- and that of all of Burma's ethnic minorities -- has taken a turn for the worse. In the run-up to last year's national elections, the Burmese government reached out to the ethnic militias, but when their détente proposals were spurned, they lashed out. The ethnic Shan Army, who also rejected the regime's proposal, has been locked in battles with the Burmese army since February. In 2009, another "cease-fire army," the Kokang, was wiped out in a matter of days, sending thousands of refugees fleeing into China.

The Kachin worry that they could meet the same fate, and they're not taking any chances. Already, the signs of confrontation are looming: On Oct. 15, Burma's state-run newspaper labeled the KIA as "insurgents" for the first time in 16 years. Over 20 liaison offices between the Kachin community and the Burmese government have been closed across the country and all official communications cut. This February, a weeklong fight occurred between Kachin and Burmese forces, resulting in the death of one Burmese commander. On May 18 the Burmese government fired mortar shells at a KIA outpost. Burmese troops have since withdrawn from the region.

In preparation for renewed civil war, the KIA has increased front-line troops, the production of guns, training of civilians and their surveillance of Burmese army activity. At a large hall in KIA territory, over 150 young cadets have just completed a heavy-artillery training course. It's the first such class conducted by the KIA in over five years. It's not that the KIA is looking for war, their leaders say. "We don't want to fight with the Burmese army, but if they attack us, we will defend our land," says Lama Gum Hpan.

The KIA is also waiting to see what the new central government, elected last fall and sworn in on April 1, will do. The new government was presented as a sort of transition, from firm military rule in civilian leadership, though the leadership of the party that came to power was composed of a handful of speciallyselected military leaders. Few Burmese are under any illusions that this semi-junta will bring about much change.

On the issue of minorities in particular, the signs don't look good. Several Kachin parties were barred from participating in the election, and the largest ethnic minority group, the United State Wa Army, chose to sit out. The Burmese military leaders have also ruled out the possibility of respecting the minority rights enshrined in the 1947 Panglong agreement that granted Burma's independence from the British. When Kachin leaders pleaded their case recently for an autonomous region under the terms of that peace agreement, Maj. Soe Win, the Burmese commander in charge of the regime's northern command told the KIA leaders, "The age of Panglong has been canceled and it is gone now."

In such a context, the minorities have begun to realize that their best chance at individual survival might be banding together as one opposition block. This February the KIA decided to work with other ethnic groups to form the United Nationalities Federal Council-Union of Burma (UNFC), which will unite all the ethnic armies. "If it all goes according to plan, all the ethnic groups involved will have to abide by a series of principles to help and support each other," says Lama Gum Hpan. If one ethnic group comes under assault, for example, other militias could come to their defense. Negotiating with the junta could also be easier with a single, stronger hand to play. "It is a collective effort by the ethnics to find a political situation to Burma's ethnic problems," says Lama Gum Hpan.

It's not the first time, though, that the ethnic minorities have formed an alliance to stand up against the Burmese government. Over the years, several coalitions have been formed, though with little success. Lama Gum Hpan blames this on the lack of communication between the groups, as well as their difficulties reaching out to the outside world: The Burmese generals have ensured that the ethnic leaders face travel restrictions in neighboring countries.

But such a coalition may ultimately have time on its side. "It seems unlikely that the new Myanmar government would want to start its term of office by provoking renewed armed conflict in cease-fire areas," suggests Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.

Indeed, the very reason that the junta organized last year's national election was to regain some measure of legitimacy on the international stage -- legitimacy that a renewed civil war would dash.

Still, military action may be in the works, and the Kachin see no alternative than to prepare for its possibility. Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military analyst on the Sino-Burma border, sitting outside a tea shop in Jeogao town on the Sino-Burma border, predicts the fighting will begin this summer. "After the rainy season, in June, they will attack the Kachin before they have a chance to unite with the other ethnic armies," he says.

While the Burmese government will prefer to avoid major offensives, opting to divide the ethnic organizations, war may be unavoidable. And when it comes, the repercussions will be dire: Millions of refugees will flood into neighboring countries, and Burma's already fragile economy will crumble as trade routes become blocked by fighting.

But for now, Burma's beleaguered ethnic groups have no choice but to prepare for the inevitable. At a basic training camp down the hill from the Kachin headquarters, a ragtag bunch of new recruits, in plain green boiler suits, do gun drills as the sun fades behind a mountain. There are men and women, old and young, and a variety of ethnicities. Despite their varied backgrounds, they are united by their commitment to the cause. "I'm ready to die for my people, and for my land," one cadet says before marching off to his next drill.