The people of Southern Sudan and of the disputed region of Abyei — which straddles north and south Sudan — will vote on Jan. 9 in referendums on self-determination. If held freely and fairly, these votes will result in an independent, oil-rich Southern Sudan. If not, the catastrophic war between the north and the south that ended in 2005, after 2.5 million deaths, could resume.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the man responsible for prosecuting both that war and the Darfur genocide (which has resulted in an estimated 300,000 deaths since 2003), doesn't want to be the one who lost the south.
We just returned from a fact-finding mission to Abyei and various points along Sudan's north-south border, where we found that Bashir's regime in Khartoum is doing all it can to undermine the coming referendums in the hopes that they will be postponed or canceled.
The United States and the international community were too late to prevent the conflagration in Darfur, just as they were too late in Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo and Sierra Leone. In Southern Sudan, however, the United States has a unique chance to avert war and atrocities.
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Most Americans have never heard of Abyei. An area about the size of Connecticut, Abyei is inhabited mostly by the Dinka, Southern Sudan's largest ethnic group. With war again looming, it could become a flashpoint for the world's next genocide.
Two years ago, the Sudanese army and its allied militias attacked Abyei town and burned it to the ground. When we visited this month, a blind Dinka chief told us about that day. Unlike the straw huts where many of his fellow townspeople lived, his house was made of concrete and bricks, so it didn't burn down. Because he was blind, he stayed behind while most people fled for safety. Four of his nephews huddled with him in his house, hoping to remain undetected. They were not so lucky. The army came and took the four boys away. No more than 30 seconds after they left the house, their uncle heard shots. The boys' bodies were never recovered.
Over the past 20 years, the regime in Khartoum has armed and politicized the northern communities that border Abyei, using them as a battering ram to drive out residents and ensure control of the area's valuable oil fields. Bashir is reactivating these militias to destabilize the area if things don't go his way in January.
Will the international community allow Abyei to burn again? Next time, the fire will not be contained to the town we visited. It will ignite a national war, with repercussions throughout the country, including in Darfur, which remains rife with conflict, human rights abuses and insecurity.
The United States needs to take a principled stand in support of the Abyei referendum, and it should further step up its diplomacy in pursuit of a grand bargain that would finally address all the issues dividing the north and the south.
The United States and its diplomatic partners can influence Bashir and his administration's calculations over whether to go to war in the south by creating bigger benefits for peace (in both the south and Darfur) and bigger consequences for war than currently are on the table.
Right now, the United States has the opportunity to avoid spending billions of taxpayers' dollars on a humanitarian clean-up operation down the road — and the opportunity to potentially save millions of lives.