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.”

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.

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