South Sudan civilians are trapped in conflict over oil

Every few moments, Nyameat Nyak glances nervously at the sky. It’s been two weeks since Sudanese warplanes bombed her tea shop as she was serving five traders, pregnant with her sixth child. Shrapnel sliced through the walls, covering her in flesh and blood.

The men died. Her baby lived.

Since the attack, there have been more bombings, more deaths and a growing unease that this nation’s prized asset is becoming its biggest misfortune. “If we had no oil,” said Nyak, 27, seated outside her hut, “we would not be attacked.”

Tens of thousands of South Sudanese are trapped in a conflict over oil and territory between their newly independent country and their northern neighbor, Sudan. For the past three weeks, Sudanese warplanes have bombed the town of Bentiu, killing 15 civilians and injuring several dozen more, according to the United Nations.

From Angola to Chad, Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea, oil and other natural resources have been more bane than blessing, generating conflicts and corruption while millions of Africans languish in poverty. But many thought oil revenue would prevent another conflict here, with South Sudan dependent on Sudan’s pipelines and ports to export its crude.

But with each assault, and as both nations mass troops on their contested border 50 miles north of here, the countries are drawing closer toward a full-blown war, potentially destabilizing a region containing one of Africa’s most significant oil reserves.

“The oil is a curse,” Mohamed Abdurahman Kili, 56, mumbled from his hospital bed, his body covered with burns. He was inside his shop in a crowded market on the edge of town when a Sudanese warplane attacked, killing a 9-year-old child and another person, and setting his shop on fire.

Oil was a key incentive in the 2005 peace deal that ended Sudan’s 22-year civil war, Africa’s longest. With an estimated three-quarters of their combined reserves in South Sudan, both sides agreed to split the revenue equally.

Tensions, though, have steadily risen since South Sudan’s independence in July, fueled by ethnic strife, contested borders — and oil.

South Sudan reneged on paying Sudan hundreds of millions of dollars for using its pipelines, saying the fees were exorbitant. Sudan responded by seizing tankers carrying South Sudanese crude and imposed a blockade on the export of the oil. In February, South Sudan shut down its entire oil production, roughly 350,000 barrels a day.

Since then, oil talks have fallen apart. Sudan has bombed oil facilities inside South Sudan. South Sudan, in turn, took over the disputed town of Heglig, the site of Sudan’s largest oil field, last month. That prompted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to declare that he would “liberate” South Sudan. Two days later, yielding to international pressure, South Sudan withdrew from Heglig.

But that hasn’t silenced the rumblings of war. On Friday, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir returned from China, where he sought funds to build an alternative pipeline through Kenya or Djibouti, and declared Heglig and its oil part of South Sudan.


(By Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

The forceful rhetoric has continued even as the economies of both countries are under immense pressure because of the oil shutdown. Both currencies are rapidly sinking in value, while fuel and food prices are soaring.

Epicenter of bombings

In Bentiu, the impact is visible. Near the main bridge, more than 160 South Sudanese languish in shacks with their meager possessions. Most had fled the civil war more than a decade ago. In Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, they were treated as second-class citizens, beaten by police, because they were southerners. Two months ago, they returned as part of a South Sudanese government program to repatriate southerners to their new country, where they hoped for a peaceful life.

Today, they are living at the epicenter of the bombings. The bridge has been targeted three times in the past three weeks because South Sudan’s army uses it to transport soldiers, weapons and food to the front lines. Every time they hear the sound of a plane, they run for cover or lie flat on the ground.

“We didn’t know we would end up in the middle of another conflict,” said John Mai Wang, 43, shaking his head and glancing at the bridge.

South Sudan’s government, which depends on oil for 98 percent of its revenue, has not had the money to send the returnees back to their traditional homes. And inflation has quickly consumed what little savings they had.

“All our money has gone to feed our children,” said Paul Khan Mameew, 30. “We have nowhere to go.”

Little benefit from oil

Even before the current tensions, Bentiu saw little benefit from oil. The streets are unpaved and covered with trash; electricity is scarce, reserved for those with private generators.

Now, the bombings have forced many residents to flee and return to their villages, said U.N. and local officials. At the market, some stalls are shuttered.

“The market is not normal,” said David Rieak, 41, who fixes computers and estimates that 35 percent of the stalls are closed. “Most of the store owners are afraid. These people don’t care if they bomb civilians.”

Most expect more violence. Bentiu has become more militarized, with armed soldiers placed at checkpoints and at the bridge. Troops are constantly moving to the front. Weapons are being flown into the airport.

South Sudan’s army commanders say several militias backed by Sudan originate in the town and are battling them in areas along the disputed border. If Bentiu falls, Sudan would be within striking distance of controlling some of South Sudan’s most lucrative oil fields.

“They are interested in driving away the people of Bentiu so they can enter and take over the oil. But we will never let this happen,” said Maj. Gen. James Gatduel Gatluak, a South Sudanese military commander. “If they start war, we will not only retake Heglig. We will reach up to Khartoum.”

Nyak is not taking any chances. She has no plans to rebuild her tea shop, which was located at the foot of the bridge. Whenever she and her neighbors hear the sounds of an airplane in the sky, they yell to their children in their local language: “Minaknaath!”

It means: “The killer is coming.”

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's bureau chief in Africa since 2010. He began his career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, and covered the Iraq war as Baghdad bureau chief.
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