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The War Against the Nuba

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Pete Muller
A woman from the Nuba Mountains at the Yida refugee camp in South Sudan, April 2012

The jagged, 1,357-mile-long border between Sudan and the newly independent nation of South Sudan is the most contentious on the continent of Africa (see the map below). Tens of thousands of troops are massed on either side and, despite peace negotiations, border skirmishes recently broke out, in which scores of soldiers were killed. The two countries are bitterly divided over how to split oil profits and how to resolve contested territory.

The war between the northern and southern Sudanese is one of the longest and most complex in Africa, driven by religious schisms, racial politics, oil, and an especially convoluted colonial legacy. The first period of fighting began in 1955 and lasted until 1972. During the second period of conflict, between 1983 and 2005, more than two million people were killed and hundreds of thousands of starving people became refugees, including the Lost Boys, southern Sudanese children who were cast off to wander for hundreds of miles across the savannah, dodging lions and bombers. One of the terms of the peace agreement that ended the fighting in 2005 was a referendum held in 2011 in which southern Sudanese voted overwhelmingly for independence from the north.

Within this broader conflict, the rebellion in the Nuba Mountains may be the most intractable. It is also the one causing the most intense violence and suffering right now. The Nuba rebel army, based within Sudan but with support from South Sudan, has been willing to fight far better equipped Sudanese government forces.

The Nuba people were celebrated by Leni Riefenstahl in a book of photographs, The Last of the Nuba (1973). Riefenstahl, the famous German filmmaker and confidante of Hitler, was drawn to the Nuba because of the vivid quality of their traditions, including public wrestling, which lasted well into the 1970s and continue to some degree to this day. Their territory, the Nuba Mountains—really hills about three thousand feet high—lies just across the border from South Sudan. For centuries the Nuba retreated into these hills to escape slave raiders. The Nuba are not Arab, like the rulers in Khartoum, and many are not Muslim; they have long seen themselves as closer to the ethnic groups, many with animist beliefs, of what is now South Sudan. They are officially Sudanese citizens, but they are seen by the Sudanese government in Khartoum as subversive enemies and they have been mercilessly bombed and starved.

Last summer, I boarded a plane carrying medical supplies into the Nuba Mountains. The pilot was a chain-smoking Bulgarian woman who lives in Nairobi with exotic animals, including monkeys and chimps, which she routinely rescues from the war zones where she flies. She had filed a misleading flight plan that morning because no one was supposed to know our destination, including the Sudanese leaders, although they probably knew very well where we were going. The airspace above the Nuba Mountains was strictly closed, and the Sudanese air force was threatening to shoot down any unauthorized flights, including humanitarian aid flights. Our plane was a slow-moving, single-engine Cessna Caravan stuffed with crates of medicine and several large canvas tents for refugees whose homes had recently been bombed out of existence.

We lumbered north from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, over the Sudd, the seemingly endless malarial swamp where the Nile River stalls and spreads aimlessly across the landscape. Many explorers searching for the source of the Nile never made it through the Sudd. We flew over savannahs and primordial forests before reaching a set of undulating hills the tawny color of lions. We hit the ground hard, hurtling through the tall grass, past pickup trucks smeared with mud intended as camouflage and dozens of rebel soldiers toting machine guns. Our contact, a friendly young Nuba aid worker named Nagwa, took us to a waiting Land Cruiser. “Welcome to the Nuba Mountains,” she said. “Now let’s get out of here.”

Just that week, bombs had been dropped from the Ukrainian-built Antonov aircraft of the Sudanese air force. Several villagers had been killed, including a little girl fetching water who was literally sliced in half by shrapnel. On the ride to Kauda, a rebel stronghold, Nagwa told me that people were so terrified that they were fleeing their villages on the valley floor to hide in mountaintop caves. If you hear a plane, Nagwa warned, “Just lie flat, or you could get killed.”

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Mike King

Now, a year later, the Republic of Sudan is still slaughtering its own people. For the past year the Sudanese security services have been relentlessly attacking the Nuba Mountains not only with aircraft, but more recently with Chinese-made rockets and thousands of ground forces in an attempt to stamp out the growing Nuba rebellion. Farms, churches, and schools have been bombed; women have been raped; and countless people have been killed or disappeared.

The Nuba people have been chafing against the Sudanese central government for years, complaining of neglect and oppression, and they want more autonomy, a familiar, dangerous demand in this huge, heterogeneous country that has been wracked by tensions since before independence from Great Britain in 1956. Sudan—or now the two Sudans—is a complex place with a dizzying amount of diversity. Before South Sudan split off, Sudan was the biggest country, geographically, in Africa. But it also had an unusually clear internal demarcation, reinforced by the British colonizers, with the southern part mostly animist and Christian and the north mostly Muslim and long dominated by Arabs. The Sudd, which means “barrier” in Arabic, historically separated the two, and the British even passed laws forbidding Muslim traders from entering the south.

The Sudan government has responded to the unrest in the Nuba Mountains in its usual brutal way, unleashing the same kind of scorched-earth campaign first carried out in southern Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s and later in Darfur in the early 2000s. In fact, all these different conflicts from past and present are now threatening to converge into one. The Nuba rebels recently teamed up with some of the most powerful insurgents in Darfur to jointly fight Khartoum. South Sudan has provided the new rebel alliance with covert military aid, including rockets, tanks, and men. The Nuba rebels used to be part of the same rebel movement—the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—that now rules South Sudan. Some analysts say that the Nuba rebellion is being directed from Juba.

The fighting in the Nuba Mountains, which began in June 2011, is precisely what sparked the clashes along the border between the north and the south this spring, which many people feared would escalate into all-out war. The Sudan government in Khartoum started bombing South Sudan territory, attempting to cut off the supply routes from the south to the Nuba rebels. South Sudan responded by sending forces across the border and seizing territory, namely Heglig, Sudan’s most productive oil field. This pushed the two sides into the most dangerous standoff since the north–south war officially ended in 2005.

Sudan doesn’t have many friends. Its president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has held power since 1989, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, in connection with the massacres in Darfur. Sudan is also under a number of punishing sanctions, some dating back to 1993 when Osama bin Laden briefly lived in Khartoum, others piled on after the conflict in Darfur began. Still, many people, both Western leaders and Bashir’s domestic political opponents, worry deeply about what might happen if the new rebel alliance ousts Bashir, leaving Sudan without any coherent leadership. Nearly every corner of this country is littered with weapons and there is a serious risk that Sudan could plunge into a Somalia-like morass in which the various armed groups carve the country into warring fiefdoms.

According to a report issued this May by Human Rights Watch, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) are not only fighting the rebels but are wiping out food supplies and water sources in the Nuba Mountains, while also blocking humanitarian aid. The report said that Nuba people in the town of Troji “told Human Rights Watch that in December, SAF soldiers set fire to stores of grain and to fields, destroyed grinding mills, and looted cattle.” Other advocacy groups are beginning to talk of famine and say that unless the situation drastically improves, thousands of besieged Nuba could soon starve. In mid-May Oxfam said, “We’re on the path from crisis to catastrophe.”

The American government has urged Sudan to lift the blockade of the Nuba Mountains and open up humanitarian corridors into the worse-hit rebel areas. In late June, the Sudanese government indicated it was finally relenting and would allow some humanitarian aid deliveries, but many aid organizations remain skeptical, saying the government has a horrible track record in living up to its word. Also, it’s now the rainy season, which means it’s very difficult for aid trucks to reach the Nuba Mountains because the roads have turned to gluey mud. China, which operates oil fields in both Sudan and South Sudan, has also exerted pressure on the two sides to return to negotiations.

The specter of another war is what prompted the United Nations Security Council in May to unanimously pass a resolution calling for an immediate halt to fighting between Sudan and South Sudan and threatening sanctions if the two sides didn’t cooperate. Immediately afterward, much of the skirmishing died down and negotiations resumed between the two nations over a host of difficult issues, including oil profits and disputed border areas. But as of mid-June, those negotiations have not stopped Sudan’s attacks on its Nuba citizens. The rebel-held areas are still sealed off. Tens of thousands of starving refugees who have been living off a diet of wild fruits and grass are now fleeing.

The Nuba Mountains are one of the most culturally distinct parts of Sudan, a region of traditional, often animist African beliefs and home to dozens of languages. Until the 1970s, most Nuba didn’t use money; they would, for example, barter a handful of tobacco leaves for some steel wire. Many didn’t bother with clothes. This was deeply embarrassing to a Muslim country trying to appear modern, and in the early 1970s, the Sudanese government forbade merchants to sell anything to a person who was naked.

The Nuba are famous for their traditional wrestlers, massive men who grapple for honor and riches in dusty rings, usually surrounded by hundreds of passionate fans. After Leni Riefenstahl published striking photos of them in The Last of the Nuba, Eudora Welty, reviewing the book for The New York Times in 1974, wrote that Riefenstahl’s photos

have an absorbing beauty and a cumulative power…. They give us fresh comprehension of man in, as might be, his original majesty and acceptance of life, in his vanity and courage, his beauty, vulnerability, pride.

Riefenstahl’s pictures encouraged this kind of romantic view of the Nuba in Europe and the US. But since the 1980s the Nuba have been squeezed in a narrowing vise. In the early 1980s, southern Sudanese rebels, who were mostly Christian and animist, launched an insurrection against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government. The southern rebels, led by the charismatic and cunning John Garang, saw an opportunity to stage attacks on the northern Sudanese forces from the Nuba hills. The Sudanese military responded viciously, first by arming Arab militias in the area and deputizing them to rape and murder the Nuba (a tactic later used in Darfur), and then by carpet-bombing Nuba villages (also a tactic used in Darfur). This drove tens of thousands of Nuba into the rebel ranks; the Nuba Mountains became one of the most active battlefronts of Sudan’s north–south civil war.

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