MAYEN ABOM, Sudan (AP) — The first group of women and children crept out of the bush just as Sunday Mass was finishing at the small brick church. Feet were swollen from days of walking. Some collapsed from hunger and thirst.
Over the next four days, many other displaced people have followed their footsteps to the grass-hut town of Mayen Abom, a two-day walk from the outer edge of the contested Abyei region. Abyei, a zone about the size of Connecticut that lies between north and south Sudan, ignited in conflict a week ago and many fear it could escalate into a new civil war. Some families were split up while fleeing and some were killed in the north's attack.
Southern Sudan officials and U.S. activists say the government of President Omar al-Bashir is moving thousands of Arab herdsmen south — backed by Sudanese army troops — into Abyei to lay claim to the land before Southern Sudan declares independence on July 9. Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir said Thursday the south would get Abyei back, but that it could take more than a year to do so.
Abyei, which has pockets of oil and abundant grass for northern tribesmen's cattle, has long been the major source of friction between north and south.
Three years ago, hundreds of families arrived in Mayen Abom after northern troops attacked Abyei. When the Rev. Emmanuel Malau heard that northern troops had again invaded Abyei last weekend, he knew villagers were heading his way. Up to 30,000 have fled.
"Sunday was like a funeral mass," he said, as the villagers talked over the looting and burning of their kinsmen's homes to the north. "People arrived very hungry and thirsty. Some collapsed totally."
After Mass, Malau drove slowly along the main road, calling for the fearful to come out. More than 300 children did, and his small church is now a shelter bursting full of people, many of them women and children, who have abandoned their homes and fear for their futures.
Abyei is sometimes referred to as the country's Jerusalem because of its symbolic status and the deeply emotional debate over its control. Both Sudan's north and south claim it as their own.
It was the scene of numerous massacres during the 1983-2005 civil war — atrocities that galvanized the southern-affiliated Ngok Dinka inhabitants to fight their way to prominent positions in the rebel movement that now is Southern Sudan's government.
"It's acquired symbolic importance. It's a place where both countries can vent their frustration at each other," said analyst and author Eddie Thomas. "Of course, that's a very bad thing for the population of Abyei."
One of Abyei's most powerful sons is Luka Biong Deng, who was Sudan's minister of cabinet affairs until he quit his post this week to protest the northern tanks rolling into his homeland.
"The looting, the burning, it is exactly like they were doing in Darfur," he said. "They are sending the army against the poor people."
Deng said he has fond memories of growing up with the Misseriya. But among many in Abyei, those ties are fraying. Some Misseriya have reformed their tribal militia and are occupying Abyei town alongside the northern army, he said. A Misseriya leader says his people are only responding to southern aggression.
"Six months ago, the southerners forced all Arabs to leave their houses in Abyei. All left. They were forced to leave. They storm the houses of the Arabs and tell them, 'Either leave or you will be killed,'" said Mukhtar Babou Nimir, a Misseriya tribal chief.
Kiir, the south's president, said he will not send his forces to retake Abyei, but he promised that the land would end up in southern hands eventually. Nimir feels equally strongly that Abyei will stay in the hands of his northern tribesmen.
"We felt as if our Abyei was lost and returned to us just like when you lose a child and you find it," he said. "Now if southerners return, we will resist and will not leave. We don't want to feel like we are refugees."
Lazaro Sumbeiywo, a retired Kenyan general who helped mediate the north-south peace deal that ended the civil war that killed 2 million people, said the current conflict came about because Abyei did not have a referendum on its own future in January, though the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement stipulated it should.
"If the two parties do not agree, Abyei should be left to be independent," Sumbeiywo said. "In the current state it is poor because the oil has not been explored but if it is explored it can be independent."
Kiir has at least two reasons to refrain from immediate military action to retake Abyei: It could scuttle the peace deal that promised the south its January independence vote and subsequent July 9 separation. And the north has military might that the south does not.
"The north has substantial military assets," noted Lauren Gelfand, the Africa and Middle East editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. "The south has just begun to evolve from a guerrilla army to a state force."
Satellite photos of Abyei show that the northern army is prepared to intensify military operations there and along the contested north-south border, where most of the south's oil lies, said activist John Prendergast of the Enough Project. He accused Khartoum-based Sudanese government of trying to intimidate the south at the negotiating table over border demarcation and the sharing of oil revenues — issues which must still be negotiated following the south's decision in January to secede from Africa's largest country.
Sudan is the third-largest oil producer in Africa, and geologists hope that unexplored territory cut off by the war might hold more deposits. Author and Sudan expert Douglas Johnson said that if the north tries to occupy other border areas near oil fields that it would inflame violence, giving the south justification to make alliances with rebel groups in the western Sudan region of Darfur.
Al-Bashir is already wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur and is banned from traveling to countries that have signed the treaty establishing the court. His country is designated as a state sponsor of terror. The U.S. had held out the prospect of normalizing relations and opening talks on debt relief but on Wednesday al-Bashir rejected the overtures, accusing the U.S. of favoring the south.
Many of the new arrivals in Mayen Abom are distraught over missing and dead family members. One 9-year-old girl the priest rescued began screaming at the mention of her missing mother. Thirteen-year-old Ring Akuem had run into the bush when he heard gunfire and walked through the night, arriving in Mayen Abom ravenous with hunger.
"I heard my parents are in a nearby village," Akuem, his dull gaze momentarily brightening, told a reporter.
Nya Piew Arop was at home with her father, husband and five children in a village near Abyei town when she heard the first explosions. As the family fled, they got separated. Arop and her husband later reunited, but her father was killed by the military attack. Her children scattered.
"I don't know who is alive and who is dead," she said.
As darkness creeps over Mayan Abom, families cram inside the church. Malau said services are being held outside for now, under the shade of a giant mahogany tree.
Most of the people, he said, pray to go home.
Houreld reported from Juba, Sudan. Reporters Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya and Maggie Michael in Cairo also contributed.