The Nuer people who now live in Leal were at the center of this contested area. Their former town, Nhialdiu, was wiped off the map on Feb. 26, 2002, in an attack confirmed by survivors and rebel commanders.
Mortar shells landed at dawn. Then came helicopter gunships, directing fire at the huts. Antonov airplanes dropped heavy bombs. Roughly 7,000 government troops, mixed with pro-government militias, then swept through with rifles and more than 20 tanks.
Stephen Mayang leans against the house he built in Leal, Sudan, after government troops and Arab militias forced him from his previous home.
(Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)
"Any human being who could not get away was killed, even children," said the chief of Leal, Tunguar Kuiyguong, who lost three of his 10 children that day. About 3,000 of the town's 10,000 inhabitants died, he said, and every house was burned to the ground. The soldiers made off with 10,000 head of cattle, which are the fundamental currency of Nuer life -- the payment for brides and the source of meat, milk and pride.
"The Chinese want to drill for oil, that is why we were pushed out," said Rusthal Yackok, who was blinded, his wife and six children killed. "Now, I have no family, no cows," he said. "I have nothing. My life is totally destroyed."
Even as people fled, walking more than seven miles to settle on a treeless plain, the bombs continued to rain down and the helicopter gunships buzzed in pursuit. "We would see the helicopters and try to hide in the grasses," said David Majang. People stripped off their colorful robes to try to blend in with the scrub.
Today, people in Leal try to coax crops from unproductive soil. They line up at wells drilled by an aid organization and await the next shipment of food aid. "Oil has brought devastation to our lives," said Stephen Mayang, a father of three whose legs were badly hurt during the attack.
China National Petroleum Corp. refused repeated requests over the past 10 months for an in-person interview to discuss its operations in Sudan.
Last week, in a telephone call, a spokesman said the company bears no responsibility for the war. "We do our own business," he said. "Nothing else."
But field reports produced by human rights groups describe a connection between the people extracting the oil and those waging the war. Some of the helicopter gunships used in the attacks on civilians are Chinese-made, according to Akol, the former Khartoum transportation minister. The helicopters, he said, have frequently been based at airstrips maintained by the oil companies -- a statement consistent with the findings of Canada-based World Vision when it interviewed survivors of attacks and defecting government soldiers in 2001.
"The Chinese have every reason not to lose these oil fields, and that is why they are committed to fighting the war by supplying the Sudan government the wherewithal," Akol said.
A recent report in the state-controlled China Business News quotes a Chinese foreign affairs official as saying that Beijing has asked Khartoum to "send troops" to areas in which Chinese companies operate.
The exit of Canada's Talisman company from Sudan was largely a reaction to public pressure. China National Petroleum has felt similar pressures. In April 1999, the company announced plans to sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange -- the first Chinese state-owned firm to land on the Big Board. It was to be the largest initial public offering in the exchange's history, valued at $10 billion. But human rights groups said the deal would be the effective use of U.S. financing to aid the killing of innocents in Sudan. Eventually, CNPC restructured the transaction. It sold $2.9 billion in a newly created subsidiary, PetroChina, asserting that none of the money would be used in Sudan.
Ultimately, it may be peace that presents the Chinese firm with its greatest challenge. Under the terms of an agreement still being negotiated, oil contracts are supposed to remain secure. But three commanders of the southern Sudan rebel group said in interviews that the SPLA will seek to punish China once the rebels gain a formal decision-making role in the government.
The stakes could be considerable: Peace would allow the world's major energy companies to enter Sudan's oil patch. Moreover, roughly two-fifths of all known reserves -- oil worth more than $16 billion -- are now in rebel-controlled territory, according to the study by PFC, the strategic analysis group.
"The suffering of the people is on the hands of the Chinese," said commander Deng Awou. "The agreements for the Chinese company may be terminated."
Correspondents Emily Wax in Khartoum, Colum Lynch in New York and special correspondent Jason Cai in Shanghai contributed to this report.