08/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Violence Threatens South Sudan Once Again

Rebuilding hasn't been easy for Abyei, Sudan.

Recently, the town's population swelled. Thatch-roofed huts popped up along Abyei's rutted streets. Oil fields dot the landscape, pumping about 500,000 barrels per day.

But, the town lacks infrastructure and running water. Disease is rampant and the poverty is staggering -- all repercussions of civil war.

Although Darfur makes headlines today, the 1983-2005 North-South civil war was one of the longest and deadliest of the 20th century. Almost 2 million civilians died and 4 million displaced as both sides fought for autonomy and control of natural resources.

When the U.S.-backed peace agreement ended the war, displaced residents began returning home. With them, they brought hope for new life.

But, control of the oil reserves is still disputed. Khartoum has armed the Misseriya, a tribe with claims over Abyei's cattle-grazing land, to clash with the Southern militias. In May, they attacked civilians, looking for control of that land. The South, fearing government invasion, retaliated. The fighting left hundreds dead and displaced thousands.

U.N.-led negotiations have resulted in a fragile peace, but both armies are still amassed on the border, meaning the threat of violence still hangs over the region.

"Abyei is a very important town because of where is sits," says Glen Pearson, executive director of Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan. "It's a huge insecurity now."

Most of Sudan's oil comes from Abyei, making the town strategically important to the peace. In 2011, two separate referendums will determine if South Sudan and Abyei secede. The side Abyei chooses gets its considerable oil-wealth.

"Khartoum has never seriously implemented the agreement though," says David Sullivan, research associate at the Enough Project, a group that seeks to end genocide. "Now, there is a great deal of conflict in the region. We are warning of the possibility of more."

Last month, the International Criminal Court urged the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide. This is an important step in prosecuting the crimes committed in Darfur. But, the U.N fears al-Bashir will resist, resulting in backlash against peacekeepers and NGOs, further threatening the peace agreement.

"After the peace, we saw schools built and changes happening. It transformed South Sudan," says Pearson. "Now, always on the horizon, there could be a war again and our progress could all be taken away."

Pearson's work has been vital to a population impoverished by two decades of civil war. Here, only one percent of girls graduate elementary school. This means a South Sudanese woman has a better chance of dying in childbirth than learning to read.

The recent fighting has also interrupted supply lines. Now food and fuel are running out and prices are rising in Abyei's markets.

"It is a sign of the level of tensions when what should have been a minor incident turned into a full-scale battle that is displacing citizens," says Sullivan.

But, civil war might not be inevitable if the international community puts pressure on Khartoum.

"The ICC charges represent an opportunity and a challenge," says Sullivan. "What we need now is coordinated international action, especially from the members of the Security Council."

Sullivan says the Security Council must expand the understaffed peacekeeping force in the Abyei region to stop any further fighting.

As well, the United States can suspend normalization talks with Khartoum. China's Olympic spotlight could pressure that government to cease arms shipments to Sudan. These actions will be major blows to al-Bashir.

The key is to make this happen sooner rather than later.

"If we don't stay on it, no one will be talking about the crisis in Darfur," says Pearson. "They will be talking about all of Sudan."