JUBA, Sudan – Fighting in Sudan’s disputed area of Abyei quieted Monday after more than 30 people died in clashes over the weekend as southern Sudan began polling in a landmark referendum on independence.
Following three days of clashes, a northern militia and southern security forces in Abyei confronted each other only once Monday but didn’t fight, according to officials.
The clashes came as southern Sudanese turned out in droves in a referendum that began Sunday and is set to continue the rest of the week. The oil-rich, war-scarred region is expected to vote overwhelmingly to separate from the rest of Sudan, splitting Africa’s largest country.
The referendum is seen by southerners as the end to a long and painful journey – for 50 years, southerners struggled against Sudan’s Arab central government in Khartoum, christened during colonial rule as the nation’s power center. Decades of civil war and famine followed, killing 2 million and leaving southern Sudan as one of the least-developed inhabited places on Earth.
The mood at the polling centers is celebratory and at times sober, as memories of the painful past fuse with hopes of a better future.
“I’m standing here for independence,” said Sharelady Amach, a young southern Sudanese who recalls her lost childhood spent hiding in the bush rummaging for food and sleeping under trees. “Now we will be able to develop our country and build roads, schools and hospitals.”
The vote is being monitored by a wide array of international and regional groups.
Even if a vote for secession is quickly recognized, the division won’t be clean.
Abyei is the most contentious spot along the lengthy, disputed border with the north that’s destined to form the boundary between the two new states.
Long administratively part of the north, its permanent residents, the Ngok Dinka, consider themselves southerners. Northern nomadic cattle herders who use the land for seasonal grazing, the Misseriya, also claim the land.
According to the 2005 peace accord ending the civil war, Abyei is supposed to be voting in its own referendum right now on whether to join the north or south, but it isn’t happening due to a dispute of whether the Misseriya are eligible to vote.