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The War Against the Nuba

In the early 1990s, the Khartoum government declared a jihad in the Nuba Mountains and began rounding up hundreds of thousands of Nuba civilians and forcing them into squalid, disease-infested “peace camps.” Here many Nuba were converted to Islam at gunpoint. The government also began to carry out a deliberate policy of famine, destroying food stores and displacing people from their fields—just what it is being accused of now. It was as if the government wanted to extirpate Nuba culture and the Nuba people, once and for all. Its actions are described in Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan (1995), a book published by the African Rights organization with a preface by Alex de Waal, a widely respected scholar on Sudan and then a member of African Rights.

By 2002, the civil war between northern and southern Sudan had reached a stalemate and the Nuba signed a cease-fire with Khartoum. A special status was granted to Nuba and Blue Nile, another area of northern Sudan that had sided with the southern rebels. All this was codified in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, which brought an official end to Sudan’s civil war. The Bush administration helped push the two sides to the final agreement. Condoleezza Rice and others have said that the CPA was one of the foreign policy triumphs of Bush’s eight years.

The most important clause of the CPA was the provision for self- determination for the people of southern Sudan, and in January 2011 millions of southern Sudanese streamed into cardboard ballot booths to vote yes or no for independence. After having reported on so many massacres and conflicts in the region, I found it immensely hopeful that so many people, who had sacrificed so much, were participating peacefully in their own long-awaited liberation.

The referendum went better than expected in just about all ways. Voting was jubilant but orderly, and the results—98.8 percent for separation—were announced without delay. Most significantly, President Bashir, who had fought for decades to prevent this very outcome and who stood to lose a third of his territory and two thirds of his oil if the south seceded, endorsed the referendum.

In fact Bashir didn’t have many choices. The United Nations, the African Union, and Western powers were firmly behind the referendum. The African Union, because of the deep sympathies of its members for the beleaguered southern Sudanese, overcame its usual resistance to tinkering with borders. Still, Bashir and his Islamist supporters within the National Congress Party, which has controlled Sudan for years, were led to believe by foreign diplomats that they would get a “peace dividend” for their cooperation. They were especially eager for the United States to lift its economic sanctions. Most Western experts on Sudan I know think that lifting sanctions is long overdue. Sudan, for all its brutality in Darfur and its continuing attacks on the Nuba, hasn’t engaged in international terrorism since Bashir threw out Osama bin Laden in 1996. In fact, the Sudanese security forces cooperated closely with the US after the September 11 attacks.

But nothing happened. Whenever I speak to Sudanese officials about the US, they emphasize their disappointment and frustration. “We signed the CPA and we let the referendum go ahead, and what did we get in return? Absolutely zero,” one Sudanese official told me.

After Bashir endorsed the southern referendum in early 2011, the Obama administration began the process to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror. But that process takes at least six months. And when Sudan began bombing the Nuba Mountains in June 2011, the administration changed course and decided not to remove Sudan from the terror list. High US officials have told me that under a close reading of the terror law, Sudan should indeed be removed from the list (because there is no evidence that the government is sponsoring international terrorism), but that is not politically feasible now.

The Save Darfur Coalition, supported by celebrities such as George Clooney and Mia Farrow, and other activists and their allies in Congress have succeeded in so thoroughly vilifying the Khartoum government for its atrocities in Darfur and now in the Nuba Mountains that the Obama administration’s hands are essentially tied. But if some way had been found to work around Congress and give some reward to the Sudanese government for its acceptance of South Sudan after the referendum, perhaps Bashir and those close to him would have been more willing to compromise. Instead, they felt they had been burned, which played straight into the hands of hard-liners in the Sudanese government.

The first sign of this was Khartoum’s decision to unilaterally seize the contested Abyei area in May 2011, just weeks before the south was to formally secede. This territory, one of the many hotly disputed border regions in Sudan, some four thousand square miles, is inhabited by ethnic groups that come from both north and south, among them the Ngok Dinka people. Abyei is also coveted because it has fertile grazing land and some oil. In fact, most of the oil that Sudan used to build its economy over the past ten years lies along the border between the north and the south.

While reporting on the seizure of Abyei, I was given a secret document revealing that the Sudanese military planned to occupy the Nuba Mountains next. “This is a blueprint for war,” one of my sources told me, because tens of thousands of rebel soldiers were still holed up there and it wasn’t clear what was going to happen to them after the south seceded. Although the Nuba fought valiantly with the southerners against Khartoum, the possibility of them having the right of self-determination was never an option, since the Nuba Mountains lie clearly in the north. This is why Nuba will remain one of the most difficult issues to solve in Sudan, and why most analysts expect more fighting.

In early June 2011, the Sudanese military stormed into the Nuba Mountains, beginning with relentless aerial bombardment and then with ground forces. Many villages quickly emptied out and thousands of people sought refuge in stony caves, their only protection from the onslaught coming from above. According to the Human Rights Watch report:

The civilian deaths and injuries from aerial bombing investigated by Human Rights Watch occurred mostly in civilian areas, where witnesses indicated that there was no apparent military target or presence of rebel fighters.

The civilians weren’t armed. But at least in the areas I saw, the people worked closely with the rebels. At night young rebel fighters would come to the compound where I was staying and give local aid workers photos of children and other villagers who had been killed in indiscriminate bombing runs. The aid workers would then use their satellite transmitters to get the images out to the world. A new generation of Lost Boys is now appearing as parents send their children to make the harrowing journey to refugee camps far from the mountains.

This winter the Sudanese introduced a new weapon to the Nuba conflict: Chinese-made, medium-range Weishi rockets, which fly at three thousand miles per hour and are difficult to aim accurately. The Sudanese military simply fires a battery of them at a village from twenty-five miles away, and since the rockets fly so fast, by the time the villagers hear them, it is too late.

I don’t see how there can be a quick solution for the two Sudans. Both are facing crippling internal troubles—the north has to reckon with simultaneous insurgencies in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile, and the south has its hands full with ethnic militias that have killed thousands of people in the past couple of years, laying bare the weakness of its ethnically divided security forces.

At the same time, the enmity between north and south has paralyzed the economies of both. The two sides should be working together to pump more oil. Sudan used to produce around 500,000 barrels per day and while most of that oil is in the south, the thousand-mile-long pipeline to export it runs through the north, to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The mutual dependency is clear. Instead, the two sides have fallen out over how to share oil profits. The north wanted to charge more than $30 a barrel for transit fees, and the south wanted to pay around one dollar.

This winter, the north began seizing oil tankers in Port Sudan full of southern crude oil, saying the south owed it hundreds of millions of dollars. South Sudan responded by completely shutting down oil production and vowing to build a new pipeline through Kenya, which would take years, cost billions, and, not incidentally, run uphill across Kenya’s great Rift Valley, which oil experts say would add significantly to upkeep. The oil shutdown immediately set off a hard currency crisis on both sides of the border, because oil is crucial for both north and south, especially the south, which gets 98 percent of government revenue from oil sales. A World Bank official predicted that the south’s economy could soon collapse unless oil production resumes. In the north, inflation has skyrocketed and so too has urban discontent. In late June, hundreds of Sudanese poured into the streets of Khartoum and other cities, furious about inflation and demanding regime change. The government reacted like it always does: by attacking protesters with batons and arresting journalists.

But one thing that has prevented the two Sudans from completely exploding is sustained international attention. The United States, the African Union, the United Nations, and China have their own reasons for keeping the Sudans from becoming the next Somalia. Rarely does a problem become a crisis when there are so many eyes on it. It is the places we are not watching that blow up, like Darfur in 2003 (who had heard of Darfur before then?) or northern Mali just now, home to a fledgling al-Qaeda state that seemed to materialize overnight out of the desert.

With so many interested powers and observers involved, I don’t see full-fledged war between the Sudans anytime soon. Yet because of the Nuba Mountains, because of Abyei, because of the disputes over oil, and because of the weight of a poisonous history, I don’t see a prospect of lasting peace either.

—July 11, 2012


Concentrating on the Nuba October 25, 2012

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