Straddling the volatile border between former civil war foes Sudan and South Sudan, the baking scrubland and crumbling buildings of Abyei do not look like many would die for the land.
Yet the contested region, a Lebanon-sized area claimed by both sides and ravaged by repeated rounds of conflict, is one of the most contentious issues outstanding since South Sudan won independence from Khartoum in July 2011.
In a ruined local government building smashed during fighting, graffiti left behind by Sudanese troops — who stormed the enclave in May 2011 forcing over 100,000 to flee southward — offers a grim warning.
“We have liberated this area with bullets, God bless bullets!” the message in Arabic reads.
The rival presidents are due to meet Friday in the Ethiopian capital in the latest African Union-mediated effort to broker a deal on the region, with South Sudan pushing for the implementation of a stalled referendum for Abyei.
That January 2011 vote — set up as a key part of the 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of civil war — never took place, after Khartoum demanded the inclusion of the pastoralist Arab Misseryia, who have traditionally crossed the region each year to graze their vast herds of cattle.
The largely settled residents of Abyei however — the Dinka Ngok people, who would be expected to overwhelmingly vote to join South Sudan — oppose their inclusion.
Abyei-resident Kual Nyok Paget says he was one of the last to flee the latest round of bloody fighting in 2011, dodging shrapnel and crawling through drainage ditches in a failed bid to rescue vital papers ahead of the invading force.
He had hoped that the papers — a Sudanese identity card, college diploma, and computer skills certificate — would secure him a job with the United Nations.
“These documents were very important for me. We had already lost everything, but I didn’t want to lose my identity, my achievements”, the 24-year-old scrap metal dealer said. He was unable to get past the troops surrounding his house.
Yet Paget was also one of the first to return in June, after Sudanese forces withdrew and were replaced by UN peacekeepers from Ethiopia, in a deal struck following heavy battles with South Sudanese troops in border regions nearby.
Like others, he has had to adapt to living in a ghost town, scratching a living to try to rebuild homes destroyed in the fighting.
“I’ve had to get different skills. I’m now making bricks to construct houses and trying to get by with what metal there is,” he said.
“The roofs were looted by soldiers and civilians, all the iron sheets were taken.”
Abyei, once oil-rich but with production now tailing off, is a key area of emotional and symbolic significance for both the fledgling South and the rump state of Sudan.
Influential leaders in both nations come from ethnic groups in the region, where animosity exacerbated by political rivalries in the capitals is replacing an ancient tolerance that allowed the two tribes to share the land.
“There’s no way we can be friends,” said 38-year-old tea seller Achuil Deng, a Dinka, recounting how her family’s cows were looted and homes were torched, yet adding she was determined never to leave her homeland.
“We were born here, grew up here and our children grew up here too. Even if there’s no peace, there’s no way we can stay away,” she added.
“They chased away people from this place and they are proud that they did it...They want to show that this place belongs to them,” says Longo Mangom Awic, another Abyei resident.
In Abyei’s rundown market, Sudanese trader Hashim Bashara Ali says that while there is no problem between him and the Dinka, he fears what would happen with a vote.
“If Abyei is part of South Sudan, my business will stop, so it’s not good,” he said.
Achuil Akol Miyan Piok, finance minister for the Abyei administration — based in Agok, just across the border in South Sudan — warns he is expecting “troubles” in the tinderbox region.
Piok, a Dinka, claims that the Misseryia want not only to continue grazing their cattle in Abyei, but to seize the land for themselves, and that people are fearing clashes to block a referendum from going ahead.
“Their chief said that they would attack us and do a lot of things to stop a referendum”, he said. “They want to take the land, and I think this is not Misseryia strategy, it is the government of Khartoum.”
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