South Sudan: At What Point Does Conflict Become a War?

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Hannah McNeish / Getty Images

People wait outside a medical clinic on December 5, 2011, at the Doro refugee camp, near the town of Bunj, about 40 kilometres (26 miles) from the border in South Sudan's Upper Nile state, where on average 1,000 people arrive every day.

Assassinations. Pitched battles. Cross-border bombing raids. Hundreds of thousands of refugees. At what point will the rising conflict between Sudan and South Sudan be recognized as a new war?

South Sudan achieved independence from the north in July after a half century of grinding conflict in which more than 2 million people died. Separation has not led to peace, however, most importantly because neither side is happy with their new border. One point of conflict is a band of southern states in the new north Sudan — Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile — which remain on the upper side of the divide despite being home to armies of rebel secessionists. Many of these fought for independence alongside the south and continue to do so today, with enduring southern support.

(READ: Dodging bombs with the rebels of Blue Nile.)

A second reason for continuing conflict is claims by the northern regime in Khartoum over much of the territory now designated as South Sudan – not least those parts that are rich in oil – which seems to be behind repeated northern bombing raids into the south.

The latest indication this situation of mutual, interlocking and spiraling enmity might once again escalate to a fully-fledged war came Thursday when South Sudan reported that northern Sudanese bombers had once again bombed the south, killing 17 cattle herders in the southern state of West Bahr al-Ghazal, just south of the westernmost stretch of the new border. “This [attack in West Bahr al-Ghazal] is a hostile aggression that Khartoum has been conducting against the civilian population,” South Sudan’s military spokesman Col. Philip Aguer told the BBC. He added northern bombers had also struck areas in Unity state, another southern border province to the east where in November northern bombers hit a refugee camp.

Khartoum has denied carrying out any raids and claims it is the south that is guilty of aggression. Southern troops are massing in Unity state in preparation for an attack on the north, says the north’s military spokesman. Sudan’s foreign ministry spokesman, Al-Obeid Meruh, adds 350 members of the Darfur-based rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (J.E.M.) — whose leader Khalil Ibrahim was killed in fighting with northern forces a few days ago — crossed into South Sudan on Wednesday. Al-Obeid called on the international community to pressure the south “to stop supporting these troops and disarm them.”

The situation in South Sudan is further complicated by more fighting between the new government, which is dominated by the Dinka ethnic group and has already garnered an impressive reputation for ineptness and corruption, and a number of breakaway militias from different ethnic groups. (The leader of the most prominent of these, George Athor, was assassinated on Dec. 21). To a country that, as well as being the newest, is one of the poorest on earth, all this fighting has bequeathed the additional burden of a refugee crisis, with hundreds of thousands displaced and hundreds more arriving from the north every day. Meanwhile the U.N. is warning poor rains means 2.7 million southern Sudanese — out of a total population of 8 million — will need food aid to avoid malnutrition and famine in 2012. Maybe war isn’t the right word to describe what’s happening in South Sudan after all. How about catastrophe?