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."