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Concentrating on the Nuba

In response to:

The War Against the Nuba from the August 16, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

Jeffrey Gettleman provides a useful overview of crises in the Nuba Mountains and elsewhere in Sudan and South Sudan [“The War Against the Nuba,” NYR, August 16]. His reporting creates a vivid picture of the Khartoum regime’s vicious campaign of human destruction.

Even so, there are serious shortcomings in his account. Particularly dismaying is the way in which he recapitulates the errors of US diplomacy in late 2010 and early 2011. Seeking final implementation of the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” (2005) between Khartoum and Juba, the US focused exclusively on the January 2011 self-determination for the South—certainly a first priority. But this meant “de-coupling” Darfur (described by President Obama as the site of genocide) and downplaying other critical elements of the CPA. In particular, the US abandoned Abyei, a key border region also guaranteed a January 2011 “self-determination referendum.” Sensing US expediency, Khartoum aborted the referendum over the course of 2010, and in May 2011 seized Abyei militarily, a flagrant and highly provocative violation of the CPA.

No effective international action followed, and Abyei has been absorbed by Sudan. This diplomatic failure set the stage for the violence Gettleman chronicles, and yet he nowhere mentions the Abyei referendum. Given the historical importance of Abyei for the people of the south, the Obama administration’s decision to marginalize the referendum was a disaster—and a formula for renewed conflict along the north–south border. This much was clear long before Gettleman was handed a document in May 2011 about plans for attacking the Nuba.

Gettleman says nothing about Khartoum’s arming of renegade militias in the south, with no agenda other than producing chaos and destruction. He suggests, preposterously, that war in the Nuba may be directed from Juba. Anyone who knows Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, former governor of the Nuba and a skilled military leader, understands that he needs no guidance from Juba. Anyone who has traveled among the Nuba people can be in no doubt about the ferocity of their determination to defend their lands. Gettleman suggests that Khartoum’s bombing of South Sudan began in June 2011; in fact, the regime has bombed the territory of South Sudan continuously since November 2010, targeting all five border states in the south.

These and other errors undermine one of Gettleman’s largest conclusions: that American outrage at Khartoum’s serial genocides left the “Obama administration’s hands…essentially tied.” They have been “tied” by bad policy and incompetent diplomacy.

Eric Reeves
Professor of English
Language and Literature
Smith College Northampton, Massachusetts

Jeffrey Gettleman replies:

Eric Reeves is one of the most passionate and engaged American academics writing on Sudan and I appreciated his taking the time to share some thoughts. But I have to disagree with him on several fronts.

First, I never wrote that Khartoum’s bombing of South Sudan began in June 2011, as he asserts. Instead, I wrote in two places that June 2011 is when the fighting began in the Nuba Mountains (“The fighting in the Nuba Mountains, which began in June 2011…’’ and later “when Sudan began bombing the Nuba Mountains in June 2011…”). I was there in late June 2011 and saw with my own eyes villagers sprinting into caves to escape the Antonov bombers used by Sudan.

Also, Mr. Reeves makes it seem as if I glossed over Abyei, a disputed, multi-ethnic territory that straddles the north–south border and is enormously important to the larger Sudan–South Sudan dispute. In fact, I didn’t fail to mention Abyei in this essay—there’s an entire paragraph about it.

Finally, Mr. Reeves questions how I could suggest that the Nuba rebels have been relying heavily on the South Sudanese. I could not go into detail, but I have knowledgeable sources who shared with me clear evidence that the south was sending heavy weapons into Nuba, including tanks, and that this effort was directed from Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

All this concerns a central point. My essay was focused on the conflict in the Nuba Mountains, as the title, “The War Against the Nuba,’’ made clear. As much as I could have used ten thousand or more words to flesh out all the intricacies and intrigue of the conflict between the two Sudans, that wasn’t my assignment. At least, not this time.

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