The intense war in the Nuba in the late 1980s and early 1990s is an important piece of Sudanese modern history. The memory of this all-too-recent trauma, which culminated in an government attempt to destroy Nuba identity, is alive in South Kordofan. Confidence has not been rebuilt and the leadership in Khartoum ignores the deeply-felt Nuba fears at its peril. Militants who wish to tear up the CPA—or who anticipate its collapse—can easily feed the insecurities of the people of South Kordofan.
Many Nuba feel that their story is untold, their suffering unrecognized, and that denial in Khartoum means that they are doomed to repeat the dreadful experience of almost twenty years ago.
In 1988, scores of educated Nuba were detained and executed. For several years the militia carried out massacres of villagers. In 1992, the Sudan Government launched what was almost certainly the most ambitious campaign of forced social change in modern Sudanese history. It was proclaimed a jihad. The scale of the military assault on the Nuba was larger than anything seen before or subsequently in the Sudanese wars. The battle of Tullishi was fought around the clock for almost four months. The ambition of entirely emptying the Nuba Mountains of the Nuba people, and forcibly relocating them to ‘peace camps’ away from their homelands, had no parallel. The aim was nothing less than the complete relocation of the Nuba and the eradication of their traditional identities. The policy of separating men from women and preventing the Nuba reproducing by ‘marrying’ the women to Arab men was also something unique. Of all the cases in which activists have debated whether to use the word ‘genocide’ in Sudan, the Nuba case is the most compelling instance.
Those wishing to learn about the Nuba case should begin with the African Rights report, Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan.
It is important to disaggregate the violence. Chapter 2 of the report documents the history of the war from the first SPLA incursions in 1985 up to the end of the jihad in 1993. The biggest massacres were carried out two-to-four years before the jihad campaign, either by locally-recruited militia which burned villages and slaughtered their inhabitants in reaction to the first SPLA incursions into the area, or by a notably zealous military intelligence unit in Kadugli, which rounded up Nuba leaders and had dozens of them executed. The bigger campaigns of 1992 were characterized by mass forcible displacement rather than large-scale massacre.
The second half of chapter 3 is entitled ‘A policy of rape’ and includes, among other things, parts of the transcript of the testimony a young woman who had been abducted by militiamen, held in a garrison against her will for over three months, and raped several times each night by different men. There are many, many such accounts. Thirteen years on the report is still painful to read.
It is also informative to understand how the Nuba jihad ended. When Julie Flint and I visited the Nuba Mountains in 1995, we soon realized that the imminent threat to the survival of the Nuba as a people had passed. The campaign of 1992 had failed, to be replaced by a thoroughly nasty, if lower-level counter-insurgency—the ‘Secret War’ of Julie’s film. I used the term ‘genocide by attrition’ in the report—not because the government still harboured genocidal intent, but because the outcome of the war, continued indefinitely into the future, would have been the elimination of Nuba identity. For the same reason we called the report ‘Facing Genocide.’
Why did the jihad fail? My investigations found three main reasons. First was Nuba armed resistance. Second was division within the Sudan Government—the militant jihadists who wanted a campaign of ethnic cleansing could not prevail over those who wanted to defeat the rebellion and leave it at that. Most army officers, for example, supported the war but not the forced displacement to peace camps. Third was outrage among ordinary Sudanese citizens, especially the residents of towns in Kordofan who had Nuba people literally dumped on their doorstep. The international role was entirely marginal. The head of the UN’s Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Eliasson raised the Nuba issue in Khartoum, as did U.S. officials, but their efforts had little impact.
Subsequently, the level of violence dropped further. Julie’s BBC film and our African Rights report played a big role. Our early warning system for government attacks on villages was effective. We started a low-profile humanitarian airbridge in support of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation, with a handful of NGOs that were ready to operate in a discreet way, foregoing publicity in order to promote Nuba ownership of their programs. A year or so later some high-profile religious NGOs began operating in the Nuba Mountains, and several years later the UN and USAID provided assistance. Eventually in 2002 a ceasefire was signed. As Julie Flint describes in her posting, the situation today is very precarious. As Hafiz Mohammed notes, a new rebellion is already underway.
Beginning in 1995, African Rights ran a human rights monitoring program. One of the saddest pictures I ever saw was a photograph taken by our deputy chief monitor, Simon Noah, of a young couple laid in their grave, side by side. A few green leaves had been placed on their blood-spattered bodies before the earth was shoveled in. They had been caught by a militia patrol and wantonly shot. The woman was still alive when the nearby villagers found her, crying ‘My children! My children!’ But she was too badly injured to survive and there was no medical care available anywhere at that time. A week later Simon himself was caught by a patrol and shot dead. His was a random killing. But there were also targeted assassinations carried out by death squads, and we lost two other staff members murdered by them.
The Nuba of the early 1990s—with starving naked people squeezed into cattle trucks and transported en masse to camps hundreds of miles away, with ‘combing’ operations that left no living thing in their wake, with women rounded up and forcibly ‘married’ to their captors, and with day-and-night military operations against the SPLA in its military stronghold of Tullishi mountain—was a threat of a different order of magnitude to anything in Darfur today. Documenting it, we were tempted to make comparisons with great historical evils, but chose not to.
Commentators on Sudan are tempted to compare Darfur today and Rwanda or Nazi Germany or Argentina. Comparisons with recent Sudanese history are more informative.
Some Sudanese commentators are tempted to gloss over the history of atrocities on the grounds that now peace has been made, it is time to forgive and forget. But one lesson from Darfur stares us in the face: if the leaders of the Sudan government are not ready to acknowledge the sufferings of the people and allow their stories to be told, to apologize to the people and make recompense, then they may face wider international outrage with consequences they cannot control. As South Kordofan faces the prospect of a new rebellion, the Government of National Unity should consider a process of truth and reconciliation, taking the time to listen to all the people of South Kordofan, to build the confidence needed for lasting peace.