South Sudan’s Looming War With Sudan as Warplanes Bomb Bentiu

The world’s newest country celebrates its first anniversary this July, but it may fight its first war before then. Laura Heaton reports on the escalating tensions with Sudan—and the oil at stake.

Ashraf Shazly, AFP / Getty Images

Not yet a year old, South Sudan is in the midst of a fiery confrontation with Sudan, its longtime rival and former other half, which threatens to thrust the two countries into a full-fledged war. On Tuesday, for the second day in a row, Sudanese warplanes dispatched by the government in Khartoum bombed villages and oil fields in and around the South Sudanese town of Bentiu, about 40 miles over the border.

With the threat of war now greater than it has been since South Sudan broke away in July 2011, I caught up with Nyagoa Nyuon, one of the young South Sudanese profiled in Newsweek International’s cover story last July, who had returned to South Sudan from the United States to help rebuild. Nyuon is now living in Nairobi, Kenya, on maternity leave from her job with the South Sudan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but she follows news of the growing conflict closely. Her first child, a son named Jermund Nakel, was born in February.

Nyuon says she was surprised to see tensions with Sudan escalate the way they have, despite a long history of violence. “I was worried about the borders issue and the tribalism in South Sudan, but I was optimistic,” says Nyuon. “I thought things would work out—we got this far.” But the last few days have left her questioning whether South Sudan will be a place she can raise a family, and she acknowledges how fortunate she is to have a choice, unlike many mothers there. Nyuon has plans to return to the capital, Juba, at the end of June—“everyone at work knows I just want to be there”—to join her husband and introduce their son to the rest of the family, just in time for the one-year anniversary of independence.

But nine months into Sudan and South Sudan’s separation, that event is looking far less rosy than last year’s.

After months of tense talks about post-split arrangements between the two countries—the most explosive of which revolve around the contested border and oil, which is mostly found in South Sudan but processed and exported through Sudan—relations deteriorated into direct combat over Heglig, a major oil site claimed by both countries but long controlled by Khartoum. The South Sudan army took control of Heglig on April 10 and stayed for nearly two weeks, after briefly holding it in late March. But amid a torrent of international criticism for what was at worst a violation of international law and at best a seemingly intentionally provocative move, South Sudan announced last Friday that its soldiers would withdraw. Whether the reported advance of Sudanese troops factored into the decision remains an open question. Whatever the motive, by late last week it seemed the military standoff might abate.

Then this week began with a salvo of Sudanese aerial bombardments well over the international border that suggests South Sudan’s inaptly named unity state could be the ground zero for a new war.

It’s a devastating turn for the new country, ushered to independence last July by a host of international actors, who turned out in full regalia to congratulate the new leaders and offer partnership to the “baby nation,” as one billboard in Juba called the fledgling country. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who had commanded a brutal civil war against southern rebels and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide in Darfur, attended the July 9 ceremony and proclaimed, “Our relations with our brothers in South Sudan will have preference over any other relations. We see our two countries as one vast country that is rich with its natural resources and fertile land.”

Now he has vowed to drive the “insects” in Juba from power.

The messiness of the split didn’t come as a complete surprise. For months leading up to South Sudan’s Independence Day, international mediators, analysts, and activists urged leaders in Khartoum and Juba to address their outstanding grievances (how to manage oil, how to handle contested areas) and make arrangements for new, anticipated disputes (citizenship, security guarantees to prevent interference in each other’s internal affairs). But with independence so close on the horizon, there was a noticeable reluctance to push these contentious issues and possibly postpone or derail the separation. Now they’re flaring.

“The atmosphere is as poisoned as it has been since talks began, but full-scale war is not inevitable,” says Zach Vertin, the International Crisis Group’s senior Sudan analyst. “If the calculations of pragmatists prevail, we could see a return to the negotiating table when hostilities subside. The hope is that underneath the dangerous discourse remains a recognition that a return to war is a lose-lose scenario.”

Vertin cautions that al-Bashir’s recent comments about overthrowing the South Sudan government are dangerous in light of the strong emotions driving actions along the border. “But high rhetoric is a national pastime in the two Sudans,” he adds. “Such posturing is not only about conflict with Juba or northern opposition forces, but about political maneuvering at home.”

But this time feels different, Nyuon says. On Monday, al-Bashir visited Heglig, now under the control of his forces. Dressed in his military uniform, Bashir vowed he would not negotiate with South Sudan, as it occupied Sudanese territory. South Sudan officials “don’t understand anything but the language of the gun and ammunition,” he said.

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Nyuon says she hopes South Sudan officials will rise above the rhetoric, even if Sudan continues to “poke, poke, poke.” Apart from the current conflagration on the border, South Sudan has a host of internal challenges to address to become a cohesive, stable, and economically viable country, says Nyuon. But that work is currently on hold as the South Sudanese consider the renewed possibility of war. “This is where the hard work kicks in,” she says. “We have so much to lose.”