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Humanitarian crisis on world's newest border

By Jane Ferguson, for CNN
  • Tens of thousands flee violence in oil rich border region of Abyei
  • They walked for days through the bush to get to a U.N. camp
  • They are mostly subsistence farmers living on the border area of Sudan and Southern Sudan
  • Southern Sudan is scheduled to become independent on July 9

Turalei, Sudan (CNN) -- Adok sits under a tree near a World Food Programme distribution site, surrounded by tens of thousands of her former neighbors.

She says she lost two of her children in the panic as she fled from attacks by Sudanese armed forces.

Desperate to go home, she is too exhausted and hungry after the four-day walk. Her husband and remaining six children are out looking for the two missing children as she waits to collect food handouts.

"We ran away when the fighting escalated and nobody could see their families," she said.

Adok lives in Abyei, in the oil-rich disputed border region between Sudan and Southern Sudan, which will become the world's newest nation on July 9.

She is also a native Dinka -- the black African tribe pitted against northern Arabs in more than three decades of civil war. Most of Abyei's displaced are Dinka.

Despite a fragile 2005 peace deal, fighting broke out in Abyei on May 19 when Southern Sudanese forces attacked a U.N. convoy escorting Sudanese Armed Forces.

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The attack left 22 soldiers dead and brought retaliation by the Sudanese army, which took control of the town and expelled southern military units. The takeover was followed by looting and the displacement of thousands.

Fleeing south, most people scattered into the bush, fearing they would be spotted by soldiers on the ground or military planes above.

They found refuge in the tiny village of Turalei, 45 miles (70 km) south of the violence where reports of lost parents, children and siblings are common among the displaced residents of Abyei.

Yaman Deng is among those sitting and waiting. She had to leave her elderly parents behind when the soldiers came, she says, weeping.

"We had a home in Abyei with a garden, and we had cows," she says. "But the Arabs from the North came and took it. The Arabs from Khartoum."

Most of the displaced refer to the fighting as an Arab invasion. For decades southern Sudanese from the border area -- mostly black African and Christian -- have been caught between rival north and south factions in bloody conflict.

Although subsistence farmers, they have the misfortune of living in an oil-rich region. Abyei is still claimed by both sides, just weeks before Southern Sudan declares its independence after a referendum that excluded the people of Abyei.

Laul Maleng carried his three-month-old son for several days and nights to reach Turalei. He said he left after watching his brother get shot dead in the street by Sudanese soldiers back in May.

"The Arabs of [Sudanese President Omar] al-Bashir shot my brother. They came with helicopters," he said.

Southern Sudan and a number of advocacy groups are calling the attacks on Abyei ethnic cleansing. Many point to Bashir's closure of the north-south border, effectively starving areas in the south of essentials.

But the government of Sudan denies this.

"We went to Abyei to put the house in order and to the stop any violation by the SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] creating havoc by the armed forces in Abyei," said Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, the Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations. "We immediately declared that our presence there is temporary. We are not going to stay indefinitely in Abyei."

In Turalei, 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 were selling some aged onions and one roadside restaurant had a bag of bread loaves for sale at extortionate rates.

"They closed the border intentionally," said Deng Alor Kuol, Southern Sudan's Minister for Regional Cooperation. "President Bashir - he did that because he was trying to teach the south a lesson -- it was a policy. He said the attack on Abyei was one, the closure of the border was two -- and that he still has some other things to do to punish the south."

Satellite images released by the Sentinel Project show that homes in Abyei were razed. Founders George Clooney and John Prendergast say the images are proof of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing -- as homes are destroyed with the intention of preventing local African Dinka tribes from returning.

The violence since then is likely to accomplish just that.

Strikes by Sudanese forces on the disputed state ironically called Unity -- another oil rich border area next to Abyei -- have already begun, after much speculation of the north mobilizing there.

Southern Sudan's leader, Silva Kiir, has said he will not return to a war that could jeopardize the south's independence.

But border clashes and the mobilization of various militia groups have already begun. Shortly after I arrived in Turalei, dozens of southern soldiers and half-uniformed militia arrived hoping to find food and fuel.

The clashes in Unity state are being blamed on a renegade, General Peter Gadet, who is presumed - by the Southern leaders - to be backed by Bashir's government. In Sudan's ethnic conflicts, such tactics have been used before and the old phrase "Kill the slave through the slave" was known before Bashir took power.

For the people of Abyei, like Adok, clashes over oil, land and power can be simply explained.

"The Arab army have come to take our place and chase us away," she says. "I want to go back to Abyei, even if I die."