After a weekend of slaughter and bloodshed, the Northern army now occupies Abyei—inflaming tensions that could lead to an escalated civil war. John Avlon reports on the real-time test for the international community.Blood is flowing on the dirt roads of Abyei. Airstrikes and artillery fire have compounded the body count. The surviving population has been driven out, their town looted and burned.
Sudan now faces the real prospect of a reignited civil war, just seven weeks from the scheduled formal declaration of independence by the Republic of South Sudan from the Arab and Islamist government of the North in Khartoum. Over two million people were killed before the last extended outbreak of civil war ended in 2005.
This past weekend’s slaughter was not a proxy war between warring tribes, but an outright military conflict with conventional forces. The Northern army now occupies Abyei. And no one can say that they didn’t see it coming.
The remote, oil-rich region of Abyei has long been the sticking point in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement negotiations. The local native Ngok Dinka tribe clearly identifies with the people of the South. But the North sees losing its oil resources as an economic calamity—and so they have done what many observers long expected: wait for international attention to focus elsewhere and then occupy the region by force before the official independence scheduled for July 9, 2011.
The question is not whether the independence supported by 99 per cent of the Southern population in the January referendum will go forward—it is a question of whether that event will be accompanied by ongoing military conflict, a civil war turning into an international war literally overnight.
“From the beginning, Abyei has been the focal point. If the violence continues the whole peace process is in vain,” emailed the actor and Sudan activist George Clooney, whose efforts have helped bring international attention to the war-torn African nation. “This is the moment that will decide the future of north and south Sudan. This is the time for everyone interested in lasting peace to get involved.”
Tensions are escalating further after the attacks. The government in Khartoum, led by indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir is flatly denying U.S. and U.N. requests that they abandon their territorial gains as part of negotiations. With arch condescension, Bashir simultaneously declared “our intention is create warm relations with southerners.”
There has been a steady stream of violence in Abyei since the eve of the January referendum, when I visited Abyei with Clooney, John Prendergast of the Enough Project, and photographer Lynsey Adario for a Newsweek cover story. The day we were there, more than 100 people were killed in a clash between the Ngok Dinka tribe and the nomadic Misseriya tribes who came down from the north. By early March, three villages had been burnt to the ground and 20,000 locals displaced. Troops and tanks had been moved into formation.
Evidence of this escalation was provided by Satellite Sentinel, an innovative real-time satellite imagery project envisioned by Clooney and executed through the Enough Project, DigitalGlobe, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. A local relief worker I spoke to by phone communicated the feelings of those on the ground, who were looking forward with foreboding: “Everyone here expects more attacks.”
And the attacks came. Under cloud cover, the spark that ignited this round of attacks appears to have been firing on a Northern military convoy by soldiers from the Southern SPLA. Northern jet fighters then bombed the area, trying to take out a bridge to the South so that reinforcements could not be sent. This was followed the next day by tank and artillery fire into the town and adjoining UN compound. Doctors without Borders have reported 42 wounded currently in their care, but experts expect the total fatalities to be higher when the area is fully accessed.
“The Khartoum regime was waiting for any kind of provocation from southern forces and they were waiting for sufficient cloud cover as to render the satellite monitoring temporarily impotent,” John Prendergast told me. “This past week they got both when a southern Sudanese soldier fired on a Sudan army convoy. The regime responded with overwhelming force, as it has in Darfur, with aerial and ground assaults that have left the peace process in tatters. South Sudan will become an independent state on July 9 no matter what, but the question is will it be born into a full-scale war with the north? Literally millions of lives hang in the balance.”
The United States, which helped negotiate the hard won peace agreement in 2005 under the Bush administration, is dispatching the newly appointed Special Envoy—Princeton Lyman—to Sudan later this week. Lyman has already expressed American demands that the North withdraw its forces. The U.S. does have carrots and sticks at its disposal that might capture Khartoum’s attention—among them, debt forgiveness, removing Sudan off the official list of state-sponsors of terrorism and naming a full ambassador. All these inducements were dependent on the peaceful referendum and official independence of the South in July.
When I asked Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry in January about the consequences of Northern aggression that aimed to disrupt the transition to Southern independence, he said simply, “If the north thinks they could do something and get away with it without dramatic serious implications, they are making the biggest mistake of a lifetime.”
Now we will need to see what follow-through occurs. The North calculated that international attention would fade and that would provide a cover for their actions. The eyes of the world are now focused on Libya, Syria and the Arab Spring (which the images of Southern Sudan’s referendum helped inspire via al Jazeera across other North African nations in January). But practitioners of violence still believe they can get away with murder if the cameras lights are focused elsewhere.
This is a real-time test of the international community’s commitment to stopping more slaughter before it starts. The question comes down to attention—will this long-planned act of aggression be greeted with the clear condemnation of civilized nations? Will the North be made to feel that there is no future in seizing Abyei, or will they remain convinced that violence can create gains in a vacuum.
You at home reading this have a role to play in the outcome. It is in some ways a test of a social networking aphorism offered by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in another context: “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”
Well, does it? If the answer is no, email your congressman, email the White House, email the U.N. and the governments of North and South Sudan. Let them know that the people of Abyei are not forgotten and this aggression will not be rewarded with inaction. You can help change the equation just by showing that you give a damn about devastation half a world away.
John Avlon’s most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.